Fairies and Exorcisms

[This is taken from W.Y. Evans Wentz's The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries.]

According to the testimony of anthropology, exorcism as a religious practice has always flourished wherever animistic beliefs have furnished it with the necessary environment; and not only has exorcism been a fundamental part of religious practices in past ages, but it is so at the present day. Among Christians, Celtic and non-Celtic, among followers of all the great historical religions, and especially among East Indians, Chinese, American Red Men, Polynesians, and most Africans, the expelling of demons from men and women, from animals, from inanimate objects, and from places, is sanctioned by well-established rituals. Exorcism as applied to the human race is thus defined in the Dictionnaire de Theologie (Roman Catholic) by L’Abbe Bergier :- ‘ Exorcism - conjuration, prayer to God, and command given to the demon to depart from the body of persons possessed.’ The same authority thus logically defends its practice by the Church :- ‘ Far from condemning the opinion of the Jews, who attributed to the demon certain maladies, that divine Master confirmed it.’  And whenever exorcism of this character has been or is now generally practised, the professional exorcist appears as a personage just as necessary to society as the modern doctor, since nearly all diseases were and to some extent are still, both among Christians and non-Christians, very often thought to be the result of demon-possession.

When we come to the dawn of the Christian period in Ireland and in Scotland, we see Patrick and Columba, the first and greatest of the Gaelic missionaries, very extensively practising exorcism; and there is every reason to believe (though the data available on this point are somewhat unsatisfactory) that their wide practice of exorcism was quite as much a Christian adaptation of pre-Christian Celtic exorcism, such as the Druids practised, as it was a continuation of New Testament tradition. We may now present certain of the data which tend to verify this supposition, and by means of them we shall be led to realize how fundamentally such an animistic practice as exorcism must have shaped the Fairy-Faith of the Celts, both before and after the coming of Christianity.

‘Once upon a time,’ so the tale runs about Patrick, ‘his foster-mother went to milk the cow. He also went with her to drink a draught of new milk. Then the cow goes mad in the byre and killed five other kine: a demon, namely, entered her. There was great sadness on his foster-mother, and she told him to bring the kine back to life. Then he brought the kine to life, so that they were whole, and he cured the mad one. So God’s name and Patrick’s were magnified thereby.” On another occasion, when demons came to Ireland in the form of black birds, quite after the manner of the Irish belief that fairies assume the form of crows, the Celtic ire of Patrick was so aroused in trying to exorcize them out of the country that he threw his bell at them with such violence that it was cracked, and then he wept :- ‘ Now at the end of those forty days and forty nights’ [of Patrick’s long fast on the summit of Cruachan Aigle or Croagh Patrick, Ireland’s Holy Mountain] ‘the mountain was filled with black birds, so that he knew not heaven or earth. He sang maledictive psalms at them. They left him not because of this. Then his anger grew against them. He strikes his bell at them, so that the men of Ireland heard its voice, and he flung it at them, so that a gap broke out of it, and that [bell] is “Brigit’s Gapling “. Then Patrick weeps till his face and his chasuble in front of him were wet. No demon came to the land of Erin after that till the end of seven years and seven months and seven days and seven nights. Then the angel went to console Patrick and cleansed the chasuble, and brought white birds round the Rick, and they used to sing sweet melodies for him.’  In Adamnan’s Life of S. Columba it is said that ‘according to custom’, which in all probability was established in pagan times by the Druids and then maintained by their Christian descendants, it was usual to exorcize even a milk vessel before milking, and the milk in it afterwards. 

Thus Adamnan tells us that one day a youth, Columban by name, when he had finished milking, went to the door of St. Columba’s cell carrying the pail full of new milk that, according to custom, the saint might exorcize it. When the holy man had made the sign of the cross in the air, the air ‘was greatly agitated, and the bar of the lid, driven through its two holes, was shot away to some distance; the lid fell to the ground, and most of the milk was spilled on the soil.’ Then the saint chided the youth, saying :- ‘ Thou hast done carelessly in thy work to-day; for thou hast not cast out the demon that was lurking in the bottom of the empty pail, by tracing on it, before pouring in the milk, the sign of the Lord’s cross; and now not enduring, thou seest, the virtue of the sign, he has quickly fled away in terror, while at the same time the whole of the vessel has been violently shaken, and the milk spilled. Bring then the pail nearer to me, that I may bless it.’ When the half-empty pail was blessed, in the same moment it was refilled with milk. At another time, the saint, to destroy the practice of sorcery, commanded Silnan, a peasant sorcerer, to draw a vessel full of milk from a bull; and by his diabolical art Silnan drew the milk. Then Columba took it and said :- ‘ Now it shall be proved that this, which is supposed to be true milk, is not so, but is blood deprived of its colour by the fraud of demons to deceive men; and straightway the milky colour was turned into its own proper quality, that is, into blood.’ And it is added that ‘The bull also, which for the space of one hour was at death’s door, wasting and worn by a horrible emaciation, in being sprinkled with water blessed by the Saint, was cured with wonderful rapidity.’

And to-day, as in the times of Patrick and Columba, exorcism is practised in Ireland and in the Western Hebrides of Scotland by the clergy of the Roman Church against fairies, demons, or evil spirits, when a person is possessed by them - that is to say, ‘fairy-struck,’ or when they have entered into some house or place; and on the Scotch mainland individual Protestants have been known to practise it. A haunted house at Balechan, Perthshire, in which certain members of the Psychical Research Society had taken up summer quarters to ‘investigate’, was exorcized by the late Archbishop of Edinburgh, assisted by a priest from the Outer Isles.

Among the nine orders of the Irish ecclesiastical organization of Patrick’s time, one was composed of exorcists.  The official ceremony for the ordination of an exorcist in the Latin Church was established by the Fourth Council of Carthage, and is indicated in nearly all the ancient rituals. It consists in the bishop giving to the candidate the book of exorcisms and saying as he does so :- ‘ Receive and understand this book, and have the power of laying hands upon demoniacs, whether they be baptized, or whether they be catechumens.’  By a decree of the Church Council of Orange, making men possessed of a demon ineligible to enter the priesthood, it would seem that the number of demoniacs must have been very great.  As to the efficacy of exorcisms, the church Fathers during the first four centuries, when the Platonic philosophy was most influential in Christianity, are agreed.

In estimating the shaping influences, designated by us as fundamental, which undoubtedly were exerted upon the Fairy-Faith through the practice of exorcism, it is necessary to realize that this animistic practice holds a very important position in the Christian religion which for centuries the Celtic peoples have professed. One of the two chief sacraments of Christianity, that of Baptism, is preceded by a definitely recognized exorcism, as shown in the Roman Ritual, where we can best study it. In the Exhortation preceding the rite the infant is called a slave of the demon, and by baptism is to be set free. The salt which is placed in the mouth of the infant by the priest during the ceremony has first been exorcized by special rites. Then there follows before the entrance to the baptismal font a regular exorcism pronounced over the child: the priest taking some of his own saliva on the thumb of his right hand, touches the child’s ears and nostrils, and commands the demon to depart out of the child. After this part of the ceremony is finished, the priest makes on the child’s forehead a sign of the cross with holy oil. Finally, in due order, comes the actual baptism.  And even after baptismal rites have expelled all possessing demons, precautions are necessary against a repossession: St. Augustine has said that exorcisms of precaution ought to be performed over every Christian daily; and it appears that faithful Roman Catholics who each day employ holy water in making the sign of the cross, and all Protestants who pray ‘lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil’, are employing such exorcisms :  St. Gregory of Nazianzus writes, ‘Arm yourself with the sign of the cross which the demons fear, and before which they take their flight ‘; and by the same sign, said St. Athanasius, ‘All the illusions of the demon are dissipated and all his snares destroyed.’  An eminent Catholic theologian asserts that saints who, since the time of Jesus Christ, have been endowed with the power of working miracles, have always made use of the sign of the cross in driving out demons, in curing maladies, and in raising the dead. In the Instruction sur le Ritue,  it is said that water which has been blessed is particularly designed to be used against demons; in the Apostolic Constitutions, formulated near the end of the fourth century, holy water is designated as a means of purification from sin and of putting the demon to flight.  And nowadays when the priest passes through his congregation casting over them holy water, it is as an exorcism of precaution; or when as in France each mourner at a grave casts holy water over the corpse, it is undoubtedly - whether done consciously as such or not - to protect the soul of the deceased from demons who are held to have as great power over the dead as over the living. Other forms of exorcism, too, are employed. For example, in the Lebar Brecc, it is said of the Holy Scripture that By it the snares of devils and vices are expelled from every faithful one in the Church ‘.  And from all this direct testimony it seems to be clear that many of the chief practices of Christians are exorcisms, so that, like the religion of Zoroaster, the religion founded by Jesus has come to rest, at least in part, upon the basic recognition of an eternal warfare between good and bad spirits for the control of Man.

The curing of diseases through Christian exorcism is by no means rare now, and it was common a few centuries ago. Thus in the eighteenth century, beginning with 1752 and till his death, Gassner, a Roman priest of Closterle, diocese of Coire, Switzerland, devoted his life to curing people of possessions, declaring that one third of all maladies are so caused, and fixed his head-quarters at Elwangen, and later at Ratisbon. His fame spread over many countries of Europe, and he is said to have made ten thousand cures solely by exorcism.  And not only are human ills overcome by exorcism, but also the maladies of beasts: at Carnac, on September 13, there continues to be celebrated an annual fete in honour of St. Comely, the patron saint of the country and the saint who (as his name seems to suggest) presides over domestic horned animals; and if there is a cow, or even a sheep suffering from some ailment which will not yield to medicine, its owner leads it to the church door beneath the saint’s statue, and the priest blesses it, and, as he does so, casts over it the exorcizing holy water. The Church Ritual designates two forms of Benediction for such animals, one form for those who are ordinarily diseased, and another for those suffering from some contagious malady. In each ceremony there comes first the sprinkling of the animal with holy water as it stands before the priest at the church door; and then there follows in Latin a direct invocation to God to bless the animal, ‘to extinguish in it all diabolical powers,’ to defend its life, and to restore it to health.

In 1868, according to Dr. Evans, an old cow-house in North Wales was torn down, and in its walls was found a tin box containing an exorcist’s formula. The box and its enclosed manuscript had been hidden there some years previously to ward off all evil spirits and witchcraft, for evidently the cattle had been dying of some strange malady which no doctors could cure, Because of its unique nature, and as an illustration of what Welsh exorcisms must have been like, we quote the contents of the manuscripts both as to spelling and punctuation as checked by Sir John Rhys with the original, except the undecipherable symbols which come after the archangels’ names : -

Lignum sanctae crisis defendat me a malis presentibus preateritus & futuris; interioribus & exterioribus - Daniel Evans - Omnes spiritus laudet Dominum : Mosen habent & prophetas. Exergat Deus & disipenture inimiciessus - O Lord Jesus Christ I beseech thee to preserve me Daniel Evans; and all that I possess from the power of all evil men, women; spirits, or wizards, or hardness of heart, and this I will trust thou will do by the same power as thou didst cause the blind to see the lame to walk and they that were possesed with unclean spirits to be in their own minds Amen Amen - pater pater pater Noster Noster Noster aia aia aia Jesus - Christus - Messyas - Emmanuel - Soter - Sabaoth - Elohim - on - Adonay - Tetragrammaton - Ag : : - Panthon - · reaton - Agios - Jasper - Melchor - Balthasar Amen ---  etc. -- And by the power of our Lord Jesus Christ and His Hevenly Angels being our Redeemer and Saviour from all witchcraft and from assaults of the Devil Amen - O Lord Jesus Christ I beseech thee to preserve me and all that I possess from the power of all evil men; women; spirits; or wizards past. present, or to come inward and outward Amen --

From India Mr. W. Crooke reports similar exorcisms and charms to cure and to protect cattle.  Thus there is employed in Northern India the ‘the charm of the Invincible Protector,’ one of ‘Vishnu’s titles, in his character as the earth-god Bhumiya - in Scotland it would be the charm of the Invincible Fairy who presides over the flocks and to whom libations are poured - in order to exorcize diseased cattle or else to prevent cattle from becoming diseased. This Ajaypal jantra is a rope of twisted straw, in which chips of wood are inserted. ‘ In the centre of the rope is suspended an earthen platter, inside which an incantation is inscribed with charcoal, and beside it is hung a bag containing seven kinds of grain.’ The rope is stretched between two poles at the entrance of a village, and under it the cattle pass to and fro from pasture. The following is the incantation found on one of the earthen saucers :- ‘ O Lord of the Earth on which this cattle-pen stands, protect the cattle from death and disease! I know of none, save thee, who can deliver them.’ In the Morbihan, Lower Brittany, we seem to see the same folk-custom, somewhat changed to be sure; for on St. John’s Day, the christianized pagan sun-festival in honour of the summer solstice, in which fairies and spirits play so prominent a part in all Celtic countries, just outside a country village a great fire is lit in the centre of the main road and covered over with green branches, in order to produce plenty of smoke, and then on either side of this fire and through the exorcizing smoke are made to pass all the domestic animals in the district as a protection against disease and evil spirits, to secure their fruitful increase, and, in the case of cows, abundant milk supply. Mr. Milne, while making excavations in the Carnac country, discovered the image of a small bronze cow, now in the Carnac Museum, and this would seem to indicate that before Christian times there was in the Morbihan a cult of cattle, preserved even until now, no doubt, in the Christian fete of St. Cornely, just as in St. Cornely’s Fountain there is preserved a pagan holy well.

It ought now to be clear that both pre-Christian and Christian exorcisms among Celts have shaped the Fairy-Faith in a very fundamental manner. And anthropologically the whole subject of exorcism falls in line with the Psychological Theory of the nature and origin of the belief in fairies in Celtic countries.


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