I am delighted to welcome as a guest writer for the next week the esteemed Horatio Grin who takes us back in history to the beginnings of the legends and myths surrounding fairies. Today Horatio explores the origins of the old gods.
You can find out more about the author here: https://smorgasbordinvitation.wordpress.com/2017/06/19/smorgasbord-guest-writer-19th-june-to-27th-june-author-horatio-grin-biography/
Part one – Lost Beginnings of the Fairy Races
Part 2: Tales of the Old Gods by Horatio Grin
As we saw, the fairy race may have originated around 40,000 years ago. Yet, we know nothing about the fairies and very little about humans for much of this time. In this period the Ice Age reached its maximum extent. For thousands of years there were glaciers a mile high where London and New York stand today. Much of Europe and North America were bleak frozen wastelands.
About 12,000 years ago the ice began to melt, marking the rise of man and creating the modern world. At first people continued to live as they had always done, eking out a nomadic existence by following animal migrations and seasonal fishing; picking what wild fruits and grain were available as they passed. As the climate became more favourable, they stopped hunting and foraging, and started farming crops and herding animals. Cities developed such as Jericho and Çatal Hüyü, and civilisation arose in the Fertile Crescent in Mesopotamia, Egypt, India and along the Yellow River of China.
As civilisation developed, whole families of gods replaced the goddess cult of the Stone Age and Çatal Hüyük. The oldest of these were the Annunaki or the Star-gods of the Sumerians. Although the original tales of the Annunaki Star-gods are lost, some fragments remain in the earliest written records of five and a half thousand years ago. These say the Annunaki Star-gods created man as their slave, but freed him when he became too difficult to handle. Some of these gods were said to worship a great mother goddess, perhaps a memory of an earlier, more primitive, time.
As with tales of the Egyptian, Indian or Olympian gods, and even in the much later Celtic fairy stories, the Annunaki Star-gods are presented as human, with all our shortcomings and vulnerabilities. They need to eat and drink, rest and sleep. They squabble, are selfish, stupid, and capricious as spoilt children. They get married, have affairs, get drunk and have hangovers.
They are immortal and have superpowers, but they are by no means all-powerful. In many ways they are limited in what they can do, and often are not all that clever. They are spoken of as enchanters: able to cast spells; bring fire from their bodies; travel at great speed and transform rain into chickpeas and barley. Many of the gods have no function at all, which seems strange to us who tend to think of the Greek and Roman gods of the sky and sea, love and war.
All these ancient gods were the same: quarrelsome, vain and lustful. Only in Judaism did God come to be regarded mystically. In all other ancient religions the gods were seen, in a very human sense, as overlords to be obeyed, feared and served. When thinking about the ancient gods in this way, it is hard not to see them as Erlkings; those mysterious entities whispered about by the fairies.
The word fairy only came into use 1,000 years ago, long after Rome fell. It is a Middle English word borrowed from Old French and comes from the Latin ‘fata’ meaning a guardian spirit, while ‘ry’ denotes a place.
The Ancient Greeks and Romans took care to distinguish nymphs and demigods from the ‘little gods’, the so called ‘genius loci’ or spirits of a place, which in magical terms are more like elementals – forces of raw nature possessed of consciousness and some would even say intelligence.
It would seem that while Ancient Greece and Rome did not share our modern concept of a unique fairy race, the nymphs and demigods of field and stream were merely fairies under different names. Perhaps in the separation of Olympian god from local guardian spirits, we find the first evidence of Erlking and fairy.
The earliest surviving tales from Northern Europe date to around 2,000 ago. It is here the Alf, or Elves, are first mentioned.
The word Alf probably comes from the old German word for ‘white’ and as such recalls the White Goddess – described in the book of the same name by Robert Graves. It is remembered in sacred place names that survive today beginning Alb or Elbe. Britain was once called Albion and the Romans described it as a holy place, where druids from Gaul went to learn their craft.
The earliest Norse gods were the Vanir, lords and ladies of the wildwoods associated with nature, fertility and the ability to see the future. The Vanir are not known outside the far north of Europe, the edge of the retreating ice. They shared the land with their cousins, remembered as dwarfs, trolls and the Jotunn or giants of ice and fire. In some tales the Vanir are even called the children of the Jotunn. And often the Norse gods and goddess are described as being giants themselves.
The Aesir, the tribe of Thor, Odin and others, were immigrants from the east, which means they originated in ancient Mesopotamia. As their homeland was remembered as a place more fertile than any other, it is more than likely they came from early farming communities. Like the Annunaki Star-gods of the Sumerians, their sacred trees were the ash and the oak, so they were probably related.
Legends hint they migrated to the frozen north because they were fleeing something. One 13th century story says they were fleeing the fall of Troy. This is obviously a confused memory of a flight from persecution a few thousand years earlier, when the priests of the new god Marduk overthrew the ancient Annunaki Star-Gods and hunted them down.
When the Aesir and Vanir met there was a brutal war that abruptly ended in truce as the two tribes united. The Vanir retained their old association with nature, while Odin and his sons assumed leadership and defence. Their truce seems a reasonable compromise, especially if the Aesir brought with them the new technologies of farming and metalwork. But equally, to call a truce in the first place each side must have recognised some kinship with the other.
It is apparent both groups freely intermarried and interbred, as indeed they did with the Jotunn giants, the dwarves and trolls. The giants were forever trying to carry off goddesses from Asgard. Odin and Thor had affairs with giantesses and Frey married one. Like gods everywhere, they all bred freely with mortals, producing semi-divine children, such as daughters skilled in magic and fearless, heroic sons.
With the advent of Christianity the old gods were absorbed into the new religion or dismissed as objects of ridicule. The Irish fire goddess Bridget became Saint Bride; while the sun god became ‘little leaping Lugh’, a Leprechaun. Perhaps it was during this time the fairies began to leave behind their old association with pagan nymphs and godlings and adopt a new identity; one less provocative to a church that was becoming increasingly hostile to the old ways.
In the long run even a change of identity could not save the fairy race. In the long dark centuries ahead, they were accused of witchcraft and trafficking with the devil, and ultimately persecuted, tortured and killed.
Thank you for joining us today and thanks to Horatio for another fascinating look at the legends and myths of gods and fairies. Sally