Garden Creature Mythology, Part 2
Read part 1 here
We’re back for week two of the mythology of some of our favorite springtime bugs and beasts—featuring some four-legged friends this time! It finally truly feels like spring here in Connecticut, and while the average April temperatures in Ireland tend to be a little chillier (tends to stay in the 50s there,) it’s remains their first real season of blossoming and blooming as well. So get your wellies and gardening gloves on—we’re diving right under the hedgerow!
The first furry friend on our list is protected under the Wildlife Act of 1976—the badger (aka broc.) Due to the modern realization that they can carry diseases that affect livestock and the age-old (outlawed, but still practiced) sport of badger-baiting, populations are still in decline. But perhaps the folklore around badgers has a bit to do with it as well: badgers have long been considered to be bad luck and an omen of death. There’s an old saying: “Should one hear a badger call, / And then an ullot (owl) cry, / Make thy peace with God, good soul, / For thou shall shortly die.” But, like most things we considered bad luck, there are certain situations where they can be good luck, as well: if a badger crosses behind, rather than in front of you, that’s good, and badger teeth are considered good luck for gamblers. Badgers are quite powerfully built little mammals and will fight aggressively to defend themselves and their homes (underground tunnel systems called “setts,”) leading to a certain reverence for them—some tales even claim they’re actually shape-shifters that are actually warriors.
But those aren’t the only trickster animals in Irish folklore—for none can match the skill and cunning of the sionnach, aka the fox. They too are shapeshifters in the myths, due to their reputations of quick escapes, charming appearance, and ability to adapt to new situations and places. The word “shenanigans” is even thought to come from the Irish word sionnachuighim, meaning “I play the fox”—aka sly and calculating behavior (foxes, after all, can leave false trails to deceive hunters.) They’re so quick-witted, apparently, that they’re even able to foresee the future and hearing their bark is supposed to be an indication of eminent rain. It’s thought to be particularly unlucky if the first thing you see leaving your home in the morning is a fox (or a red-haired female stranger,) especially as a fisherman. But, of course, the fox is assumed to be able to confer good luck simultaneously as they can be a symbol of both diplomacy and protection—one of the “bog bodies” called the Lindow Man (thought to be a 2,000-year-old Druid) was found wearing a fox fur amulet.
On the smaller side we have the gráinneog, or hedgehog, though their small stature didn’t stop them from gathering a negative reputation. The Gaeilge word for hedgehog translates literally to “little, ugly thing” and their odd appearance (which has changed very little over the literal millions of years they’ve existed) has led to some odd superstitions and assumptions. In Ireland, hedgehogs were long thought to be evidence of evil spell work afoot to the point that a bounty was placed upon them during the early witch hunts of 1566. Some even thought that hedgehogs were witches themselves, shapeshifting to avoid detection and to drink milk from cows’ udders (though, it must be noted, hedgehogs are in fact lactose-intolerant.) Similar to the fox, they were considered able to predict changes in weather (probably due to the fact they hibernate when winter’s coming on,) which may actually be where our modern tradition of Groundhog Day comes from. No wonder they’re so abused in folklore—no one likes to hear there’s more winter coming.
Less furry, but still four-legged, we have the losgann, aka frog. The frog is yet another creature associated with witches and magic, as well as the underworld. This may be partly due to the fact that frogs are a late addition to Ireland’s animal life, thought to be introduced in either the 12th century by a Norman ship or even later—perhaps in the early 1600s by Trinity College students (no surprise this second date correspond to times heavy with witch hunts.) As frogs were often associated with potions and spells, the term “frog in the throat” may stem from the Irish superstition that putting a frog in the mouth of a child three times and letting it swim away could cure whopping cough. This isn’t the only illness frogs were said to be able to cure—anything from epilepsy and rheumatism to toothaches and colds. They also can predict the weather, supposedly, though by their color rather than their croak (their croak is, of course, a warning sign as a witch’s familiar.) And make sure not to let them in your home—like so much else, it’s considered bad luck.
Okay, we have to look up one more time for our last garden creature in Irish mythology: the bat, or the laltóg. I know won’t be shocking at this point in this post, but bats have long been associated with witchcraft in Irish lore and are often thought to be the souls of the dead (making it an ill omen if they enter the home or get entangled in your hair.) Like the hedgehog, there were rumors that bats were shapeshifting witches—particularly the enchantress Tehi Tegi, who used her bat form to bring men to their destruction by luring them into rivers. (However, seeing a bat at sunset was considered an omen of fair weather the next day—here are a lot of common themes here!) One of the most notable mentions of bats in all of literature has shaped how we look at bats for over a century--Bram Stoker’s Dracula, first published in 1897. Between the tale of the Irish vampire (the Abhartach,) the behavior of the now-called vampire bat, as well as the shapeshifting lore about bats in general, Irish-born Stoker immortalized a myriad of Irish folktales without many outside Ireland even realizing the origins!
That’s a wrap on garden creatures—though there’s so many more tales and legends we couldn’t fit in here. Folklore and legends prove time and again to be how we make sense of the world around us while science rushes to catch up and explain. So Happy Spring to all creatures big and small, furry and slimy, flying and land-bound, good luck and bad!
This post is part of a series. Read our last folklore post, with five other garden creatures and their mythos, here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
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