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Part 6 – Etymological Objects Within Stories, pp.lix-lxxviii.

[Popular Tales Introduction Contents]

The tales represent the actual, every-day life of those who tell them, with great fidelity. They have done the same, in all likelihood, time out of mind, and that which is not true of the present is, in all probability, true of the past; and therefore something may be learned of forgotten ways of life. 

If much is of home growth, if the fight with the dragon takes place at the end of a dark, quiet Highland loch, where real whales actually blow and splash, there are landscapes which are not painted from nature, as she is seen in the Isles, and these may be real pictures seen long ago by our ancestors. Men ride for days through forests, though the men who tell of them live in small islands, where there are only drift trees and bog pine. There are traces of foreign or forgotten laws or customs. A man buys a wife as he would a cow, and acquires a right to shoot her, which is acknowledged as good law. 

Caesar tells of the Gauls, that “men have the power of life and death over their wives, as well as their children.” It appears that an Icelandic betrothal was little more than the purchase of a wife; and in this the story may be a true picture of the past. 

Men are bound with the binding of the three smalls – waist, ankles, and wrists – tightened and tortured. The conqueror almost invariably asks the conquered what is his “eirig,” an old law term for the price of men’s blood, which varied with the rank of the injured man; and when the vanquished has revealed his riches, the victor takes his life, and the spoil; his arms, combs, basins, dresses, horses, gold and silver; and such deeds may have been done. The tales which treat of the wars of Eirinn and Lochlann, and are full of metrical prose, describe arms and boats, helmets, spears, shields, and other gear; ships that are drawn on shore, as Icelandic ships really were; boats and arms similar to those which are figured on old stones in Iona and elsewhere, and are sometimes dug out of old graves and peat mosses. I believe them to be descriptions of real arms, and dresses, manners, and events. 

For example,  the warriors always abuse each other before they fight. So do the heroes of Ossian; so do the heroes of Homer; so do soldiers now. In the Times of the 29th of December 1859, in a letter from the camp at Ceuta in this passage:-

“While fighting, even when only exchanging long shots, the Moors keep up a most hideous howling and shrieking, vituperating their enemies in bad Spanish, and making the mountains resound with the often-repeated epithet of ‘perros‘ (dogs.) To this the Spaniards condescend not to reply, except with bullets, although in the civil war it was no unusual thing to hear Carlist and Christina skirmishers abusing each other, and especially indulging in unhandsome reflections upon each others’ Sovereign.”

Again, the fights are single combats, in which individuals attack masses and conquer. So were the Homeric combats. What will be the story told in Africa by the grandson of the Moor here described, when he sits on his flat roof or in his centeal court in Tetuan, as I have done with one of the Jews now ruined; he will surely tell of his ancestor’s deeds, repeat the words in which Achmed abused the unbeliever, and tell how he shot some mystical number of them with a single ball. 

“Upon the whole they stood their ground very stoutly, and some of them gave proof of great courage, advancing singly along the ridge until they caught sight of the first Spaniards posted below it, when they discharged their espingardas and retreated.”

“Stories” had begun in Morocco by the 9th of January 1860, when the next letter appeared:- 

“The Moors have been giving out fantastical histories of their victories over the Spaniards, of their having taken redoubts, which they might have held had they thought it worth while, and in which they would have captured guns if the Christians had not been so prudent as to remove them beforehand. These are mere fables.”

It may be so, but Moors seem to have fought as wild, brave, undisciplined troops have always fought – as Homer’s Greeks fought, as Highlanders fought, and as Fionn and his heroes fought, according to tradition. Omit the magic of Maghach Colgar, forget that Moors are dark men, and this might be an account of Diarmaid and Conan in the story, or of their descendants as they were described in 1745 by those who were opposed to them:- 

“The Moors are generally tall powerful men, of ferocious aspect and great agility, and their mode of cvoming on, like so many howling savages, is not calculated to encourage and give confidence to lads who for the first time find themselves in action. It seems nearly impossible to make them prisoners. In one encounter (most of these little actions are made up of a number of small fights between a few companies of Spaniards and detached bodies of the Moors, who seem to have no idea of attacking in battalion or otherwise than irregularly), in which a number of Moors were killed, one of them was surrounded by four Cazadores, who came down upon him with fixed bayonets, shouting and signing to him not to fire, and that they would give him quarter. The Moor took no heed of their overtures, levelled his long gun, and shot one of them, whereupon he was, of course, put to death by the others.” 

So looking to facts now occurring, and to history, “traditional fictions” look very true, for battles are still a succession of single combats, in which both sides abuse each other, and after which they boast. War is rapine and cruel bloodshed, as described by old fishermen in Barra, and by the Times’ correspondent at Tetuan; and it is not altogether the chivalrous pastime which poets have sung. 

In another class of tales, told generally as plain narrative, and which seem to belong to savage times, a period appears to be shadowed out when iron weapons were scarce, and therefore magical; perhaps before the wars of Eirinn and Lochlann began; when combs were inventions sufficiently new and wonderful to be magical also; when horses were sacred, birds sooth-sayers; apples, oak trees, wells, and swine, sacred or magical. In these the touch of the cold steel breaks all spells; to relieve an enchanted prince it was but necessary to cut off his head; the touch of the cold sword froze the marrow when the giant’s heads leaped on again. So Hercules finished the Hydra with iron, though it was hot. The white sword of light which shone so that the giant’s red-haired servant used it as a torch when he went to draw water by night, was surely once a rare bright steel sword, when most swords were of bronze, as they were in early times, unless it is still older, and a mythological flash of lightning. 

This CLAIDHEAMH GEAL SOLUIS is almost always mentioned as the property of giants, or of other supernatural beings, and is one of the magic gifts for which men contend with them, and fight with each other; and in this the Gaelic tradition agrees with other popular lore. 

Fionn had a magic sword forged by a fairy smith, according to a story sent me from Islay, by Mr. Carmichael. King Arthur had a magic sword. The Manks hero, “Olave” of Norway, had a sword with a Celtic name, “Macabuin,” made by a smith who was surely a Celt, – “Loan Maclibhuin,” though he was “The dark Smith of Drontheim” in the story.1 King Arthur and his sword belong to the Bretons and to many other languages, besides Welsh; and the Bretons have a wild war song, “The wine of the Gauls, and the dance of the sword,” which is given in Barzaz Breiz (1846).2

There is a magic sword in the Volsung tale, called “Gram,” which was the gift of Odin;3 and a famous sword in the Niebelungen lied; and there are famous swords in many popular tales; but an iron sword was a god long ago amongst the Scythians.4 “An antique iron sword” was placed on a vast pile of brushwood as a temple in every district, at the seat of government, and served as the image of Mars. Sacrifices of cattle and of horses were made to it, and “more victims were offered thus than to all the rest of their gods.” Even men were sacrificed; and it is said that the weapons found in Scythian tombs are usually of bronze, “but the sword at the great tomb at Kertch was of iron.” It seems, then, that an iron sword really was once worshipped by a people with whom iron was rare. Iron is rare, while stone and bronze weapons are common in British tombs, and the sword of these stories is a personage. It shines, it cries out – the lives of men are bound up in it. In one story a fox changes himself into the sword of light, and the edge of the real sword being turned towards a wicked “muime”, turned all her spells back upon herself, and she fell a withered fagot. 

And so this mystic sword may, perhaps, have been a god amongst the Celts, or the god of the people with whom Celts contended somewhere on their long journey to the west. It is a fiction now, but it may be founded on fact, and that fact probably was the first use of iron. 

Amongst the stories described in the index to the Gaelic MSS. in Edinburgh is one in which the hero goes to Scythia and to Greece, and ends his adventures in Ireland. And in the “Chronicles of the Eri,” 1822, by O’Connor, chief of the prostrated people of his nation, Irish is usually called “the PhOEnician dialect of the Scythian language.” On such questions I will not venture. Celts may or may not be Scythians but as a collector of curiosities, I may fairly compare my museum with other curious things; and the worship of the Scimitar, 2200 years ago, by a people who are classed with the Indo-European races, appears to have some bearing on all magic swords from the time of Herodotus down to the White Sword of Light of the West Highlands. 

If iron weapons, to which supernatural virtues are ascribed, acquired their virtue when iron was rare, and when its qualities were sufficiently new to excite wonder – then other things made of iron should have like virtues ascribed to them, and the magic should be transferred from the sword to other new inventions; and such is the case. 

In all popular tales of which I know anything, some mysterious virtue is attributed to iron; and in many of them a gun is the weapon which breaks the spells. In the West it is the same. 

A keeper told me that he was once called into a house by an old woman to cure her cow, which was “bewitched,” and which was really sick. The ceremony was performed, according to the directions of the old woman, with becoming gravity. The cow was led out, and the gun loaded, and then it was solemnly fired off over the cow’s back, and the cure was supposed to be complete. 

In the story of the hunter, when the widow’s son aims at the enchanted deer, he sees through the spell, only when he looks over the sight, and while the gun is cocked, but when he has aimed three times, the spell is broken and the lady is free. 

So in a story (I think Irish) which I have read somewhere, a man shoots from his hip at a deer, which seems to be an old man whenever he looks over the sight. He aims well, and when he comes up finds only the body of a very old man, which crumbles into dust, and is carried away by the wind, bit by bit, as he looks at it. An iron weapon is one of the guards which the man takes into the fairy hill in the story of the Smith, No. 28. A sharpshooter fires off his gun to frighten the troll in “the Old Dame and her Hen;” the boy throws the steel from his tinderbox over the magic horse, and tames him at once in the Princess on the Glass Hill.5 And so on throughout, iron is invested with magic power in popular tales and mythology; the last iron weapon invented, and the first, the gun and the sword, are alike magical; a “bit of a rusty reaping hook” does equally good service, and an old horse shoe is as potent a spell against the powers of evil as any known; for one will be found on most stable doors in England. 

Now comes the question, who were these powers of evil who cannot resist iron? These fairies who shoot stone arrows, and are of the foes to the human race? Is all this but a dim, hazy recollection of war between a people who had iron weapons and a race who had not? The race those remains are found all over Europe? 

If these were wandering tribes they had leaders, if they were warlike they had weapons. There is a smith in the pantheon of many nations. Vulcan was a smith; Thor wielded a hammer; even Fionn had a hammer, which was heard in Lochlann when struck in Eirinn, according to the story found midway in Barra. Fionn may have borrowed his hammer from Thor long ago, or both may have got theirs from Vulcan, or all three may have brought hammers with them from the land where some primeval smith wielded the first sledge hammer, but may not all these smith gods be the smiths who made iron weapons for those who fought with the skin-clad warriors who shot flint arrows, and who are now bogles, fairies, and demons? 

In any case, tales about smiths seem to belong top mythology, and to be common property. Thus the Norse smith, who cheated the evil one,6 has an Irish equivalent in the Three Wishes,7 and a Gaelic story, ‘The Soldier,’ is of the same class, and has a Norse equivalent in the ‘Lad and the Deil.’ There are many of the same class in Grimm; and the same ideas pervade them all. There is war between the smiths and soldiers, and the devil; iron, and horses’ hoofs, hammers, swords, and guns come into play; the fiend is a fool, and he has got the worst of the fight; according to the people, at all events, ever since St. Dunstan took him by the nose with a pair of tongs. In all probability the fiend of popular tales is own brother to the Gruagach and Glashan, and was once a skin-clad savage, or the god of a savage race. 

If this theory be correct, if these are dim recollections of savage times and savage people, then other magic gear, the property of giants, fairies, and bogles, should resemble things which are precious now amongst savage or half civilized tribes, or which really have been prized amongst the old inhabitants of these islands, or of other parts of the world; and such is often the case. 

The work of art which is most sought after in Gaelic tales, next to the white glaive of light, is a pair of combs. 

CIR MHIN OIR AGUS CIR GHARBH AIRGIOD, a fine golden comb and a coarse comb of silver, are worth a deadly fight with the giants in many a story. 

The enchanted prince, when he ceases to be a raven, is found as a yellow ringletted beautiful man, with a golden comb in the one hand and a silver comb in the other. Maol a’ Chliobain invades the giant’s house to steal the same things for the king. When the coarse comb is forgotten the king’s coach falls as a withered faggot. In another story which I have, it is said of a herd who had killed a giant and taken his castle, “He went in and he opened the first room and there was not a thing in it. He opened another, and it was full of gold and silver and the treasures of the world. Then he opened a drawer, and he took a comb out of it, and when he would give a sweep with it on the one side of his head, a shower of gold would fall out of that side; and when he would give a sweep on the other side, a shower of silver would fall from that side. Then he opened another room, and it was full of every sort of food that a man might think there had ever been.” 

And so in many other instances the comb is a treasure for which men contend with giants. It is associated with gold, silver, dresses, arms, meat, and drink; and it is magical. 

It is not so precious in other collections of popular tales, but the same idea is to be traced in them all. There is a water-spirit in Grimm which catches two children, and when they escape they throw behind them a brush, a comb, and a mirror, which replace the stone, the twig, and the bladder of water, which the Gaelic prince finds in the ear of the filly, and throws behind him to arrest the giant who is in pursuit. In the nix of the mill pond an old woman gives a golden comb to a lady, and she combs her black hair by the light of the moon at the edge of a pond, and the water-spirit shews the husband’s head. So also in Snow White the wicked queen combs the hair of the beautiful princess with a poisoned comb, and throws her into a deadly magic sleep. That princess is black, white, and red, like the giant in No. 2, and like the lady in Conal; and likea lady in a Breton story; and generally foreign stories in which combs are mentioned as magical, have equivalents in Gaelic. For example, the incidents in the French story of Prince Cherie, in which gifted children comb jewels from their hair, bear a general resemblance to many Gaelic and German stories. Now there is a reason for everything, though it is not always easy to find it out; and the importance of the comb in these stories may have a reason also. 

In the first place, though every civilized man and woman now owns a comb, it is a work of art which necessarily implies the use of tools, and considerable mechanical skill. A man who had nothing but a knife could hardly make a comb; and a savage with flint weapons would have to do without. A man with a comb, then, implies a man who has made some progress in civilization; and a man without a comb, a savage, who, if he had learned its use, might well covet such a possession. If a black-haired savage, living in the cold north, were to comb his hair on a frosty night, it is to be presumed that the same thing would happen which now takes place when fair ladies or civilized men comb their hair. Crackling sparks of electricity were surely produced when men first combed their hair with a bone comb; and it seems to need but a little fancy and a long time to change the bright sparks into brilliant jewels, or glittering gold and silver and bright stars, and to invest the rare and costly thing which produced such marvels with magic power. 

There is evidence throughout all popular tales that combs were needed. Translations are vague, because translators are bashful; but those who have travelled amongst half civilized people, understand what is meant when the knight lays his head on the lady’s knee, and she “dresses his hair.” In German, Norse, Breton, and Gaelic, it is the same. 

From the mention of the magic comb, then, it appears that these legends date from an early, rude period, for the time when combs were so highly prized, and so little used, is remote. 

In Wilson’s “Prehistoric Annals of Scotland,” page 424, is a drawing of an old bone comb of very rude workmanship, found in a burgh in Orkney, together with part of a deer’s horn and a human skeleton; another was found in a burgh in Caithness; a third is mentioned; and I believe that such combs are commonly found in old British graves. 

At page 554, another drawing is given of one of a pair of combs found in a grave in Orkney. The teeth of the comb were fastened between plates of bone, rivetted together with copper nails, and the comb was decorated with ornamental carvings. With these, brooches of a peculiar form were discovered. Similar brooches are commonly found in Denmark. I have seen many of them in museums at Bergen and Copenhagen; and I own a pair which were found in an old grave in Islay, together with an amber bead and some fragments of rusted iron. 

A bronze comb is also mentioned at page 300, as having been found in Queen Mary’s Mount, a great cairn near the battlefield of Langside, which was pulled to pieces to build stone dykes, and which was found to contain rude arms, bones, rings of bituminous shale, and other things which are referred to very early prehistoric ages. 

At page 500 Mr. Wilson mentions a great number of monuments in Scotland on which combs are represented, together with two-handed mirrors and symbols, for which deep explanations and hidden meanings have been sought and found. Combs, mirrors, and shears are also represented on early Roman tombs, and hidden meanings have been assigned to them; but Mr. Wilson holds that these are but indications of the sex of the buried person. Joining al this together, and placing it besides the magic attributed to combs in these Highland stories, this view appears to be the most reasonable. The sword of the warrior is very commonly sculptured on the old gravestones in the Western Isles. It is often twisted into a cross, and woven with those endless knots with resemble certain eastern designs. Strange nondescript animals are often figured about the sword, with tails which curl, and twist, and sprout into leaves, and weave themselves into patterns. Those again resemble illuminations in old Irish and Gaelic manuscripts, and when the most prized of the warrior’s possessions is thus figured on his tomb, and is buried with him, it is but reasonable to suppose that the comb, which was figured on the monument for the same reason; and that sword and comb were, in fact, very highly prized at some period by those who are buried in the tombs, as the stories now represent that they were by men and giants. 

So  here again the popular fictions seem to have a foundation of fact. 

Another magical possession is the apple. It is mentioned more frequently in Gaelic tales than in any collection which I know, but the apple plays its part in Italian, German, and Norse also. When the giant’s daughter runs away with the king’s son, she cuts an apple into a mystical number of small bits, and each bit talks. When she kills the giant she puts an apple under the hoof of the magic filly and he dies, for his life is in the apple, and it is crushed. When the byre is cleansed, it is so clean that a golden apple would run from end to end and never raise a stain. There is a gruagach who has a golden apple, which is thrown at all comers, and unless they are able to catch it they die; when it is caught and thrown back by the hero, Gruagach an Ubhail dies. There is a game called cluich an ubhail, the apple play, which seems to have been a deadly game whatever it was. When the king’s daughter transports the soldier to the green island on the magic tablecloth, he finds magic apples which transform him, and others which cure him, and by which he transforms the cruel princess and recovers his magic treasures.* In German a cabbage does the same thing. 

When the two eldest idle king’s sons go out to herd the giant’s cattle, they find an apple tree whose fruit moves up and down as they vainly strive to pluck it. 

And so on throughout, whenever an apple is mentioned in Gaelic stories it has something marvellous about it. 

So in German, in the Man of Iron, a princess throws a golden apple as a prize, which the hero catches three times and carries off and wins. 

In Snow White, where the poisoned comb occurs, there is a poisoned magic apple also. 

In the Old Griffin, the sick princess is cured by rosy-cheeked apples. 

In the Giant with the Three Golden Hairs, one of the questions to be solved is, why a tree which used to bear golden apples does not now bear leaves? And the next question is about a well. 

So in the White Snake, a servant who acquires the knowledge of the speech of birds by tasting a white snake, helps creatures in distress, gets their aid, and procures a golden apple from three ravens, which “flew over the sea even to the end of the world, where stands the tree of life.” When he had got the apple he and the princess ate it, and married and lived happily ever after. 

So in Wolf’s collection, in the story of the Wonderful Hares, a golden apple is the gift for which the finder is to gain a princess; and that apple grew on a sort of tree of which there was but one in the whole world. 

In Norse it is the same; the princess on the Glass Hill held three golden apples in her lap, and he who could ride up the hill and carry off the apples was to win the prize; and the princess rolled them down to the hero, and they rolled into his shoe. 

The good girl plucked apples from the tree which spoke to her when she went down the well to the underground world; but the ill-tempered step-sister thrashed down the fruit; and when the time of trial came, the apple tree played its part and protected the good girl. 

So in French, a singing apple is one of the marvels which the Princess Belle Etoile, and her brothers and her cousin, bring from the end of the world, after all manner of adventures; and in that story the comb, the stars and jewels in the hair, the talking sooth-saying bird, the magic water, the horse, the wicked step-mother, and the dragon, all appear; and there is a Gaelic version of that story. In short, that French story agrees with Gaelic stories, and with a certain class of German tales; and contains within itself much of the machinery and incident which is scattered elsewhere, in collections of tales gathered in modern times amongst the people of various countries. 

So again in books of tales of older date, and in other languages, apples and marvels are associated. 

In Straparola is an Italian story remarkably like the Gaelic Sea Maiden, and clearly the same in groundwork as Princess Belle Etoile. A lady, when she has lost her husband, goes off to the Atlantic Ocean with three golden apples; and the mermaid who had swallowed the husband, shews first his head, then his body to the waist, and then to the knees; each time for a golden apple: and the incidents of that story are all to be found elsewhere, and most of them are in Gaelic. 

So again, in the Arabian Nights, there is a long story, The Three Apples, which turns upon the stealing of one, which was a thing of great price, though it was not magical in the story. 

So in classical times, an apple of discord was the prize of the fairest; and the small beginning from which so much of all that is most famous in ancient lore takes its rise; three golden apples were the prize of one of the labours of Hercules, and these grew in a garden which fable has placed far to the westwards, and learned commentators have placed in the Cape Verde Islands. 

So then it appears that apples have been mysterious and magical from the earliest of times; that they were sought for in the west, and valued in the east; and now when popular tales of the far west are examined, apples are the most important of natural productions, and invested with the magic which belongs to that which is old and rare, and which may once have been sacred. 

It is curious that the forbidden fruit is almost always mentioned in English as an apple; and this notion prevails in France to such a degree, that when that mad play, La Propriété, c’est le Vol, was acted in Paris in 1846, the first scene represented the Garden of Eden with a tree, and a board on which was written “il est défendu de manger de ces pommes.” 

And it is stated in grave histories that the Celtic priests held apples sacred; so here again popular tales hold their own. 


1  Train’s History of the Isle of Man, vol. 2, p. 177. 
2  The Gaelic word for a sword proves that English, French, Breton, and Gaelic have much in common – (Eng.) glave, (Fr.) glaive, (Breton) korol ar c’ hleze – dance of the sword, (Gaelic) claidheamh – pronounced, glaive, the first letter being a soft “c,” or hard “g,” the word usually spelt, claymore.Languages said to be derived from Latin do not follow their model so closely as these words do one another – (Lat.) gladius, (Spanish) espada, (Italian) spada; and the northern tongues seem to have preferred some original which resembles the English word, sword. If “spada” belongs to the language from which all these are supposed to have started, these seem to have used it for a more peaceful iron weapon, a spade. 
3  Norse Tales, Introduction, p.62. 
4  At page 54 of Rawlinson’s Herodotus, vol.3, is the translation of the passage in which this worship is described. 
5  Norse Tales, Nos. 3 and 13. 
6  Norse Tales, 16, 53. 
7  Carletou. Dublin, (1846). P. 330. 
*  This is the tale of The Three Soldiers, No. 10
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