To Fool the Faeries

I follow a fascinating little Facebook group which features old pictures of Maynooth. The above picture is not from there – it’s a private group – but I found it on the net after seeing one of the posts there on the same subject.

The point is that the little kids wearing skirts and dresses in that old photograph are all boys.

Apparently it was a tradition in some parts of rural Ireland until relatively recently (at least until the 1930s) to dress young boys (up to the age of about 12) as girls. The reason for this is both strange and sad.

In poorer communities infant mortality was high. The tragic and otherwise inexplicable deaths of young children were attributed to the malicious actions of the faeries – aos sí – supernatural beings believed in Gaelic tradition to be descendants of the people who built the burial mounds, tumuli and other prehistoric structures found all around Ireland. According to the tradition, the faeries prefer to make off with the souls of male rather than female children. Dressing boys as girls was an arrempt to protect them by fooling the faeries.

The sad fact behind this is that boys are significantly more likely to die young than girls, even in affluent societies where infant mortality is generally low, though it is probably more noticeable where infant mortality is high. The belief in faeries preferring to take boys reflects a kind of folk knowledge of this statistical fact. The reasons why boys are more likely than girls to die in infancy are complex and, as far as I know, not fully understood.

I find these traditional beliefs fascinating because they are not simply quaint superstitions – they are attempts to understand real phenomena.

The world of Gaelic mythology itself is, at least partly, built on folk memory of very ancient history. There were, after all, people in Ireland who built places like Newgrange, long before the arrival of Celtic people from somewhere in Iberia, and nobody really knows what happened to them. In mythology they turned into the little people and went underground, but are still here. Which, in a sense, they are…

21 Responses to “To Fool the Faeries”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Trousers, which have been the most obvious sartorial difference between males and females in European culture, were invented to facilitate horseriding.

    The world of Gaelic mythology itself is, at least partly, built on folk memory of very ancient history. There were, after all, people in Ireland who built places like Newgrange, long before the arrival of Celtic people from somewhere in Iberia, and nobody really knows what happened to them.

    We are in the middle of a revolution in the use of genetic evidence to infer ancient migrations. The technique involves comparison of (1) whole-genomes of ancient individuals, reconstructed from DNA in ancient bone marrow samples, with (2) a library of the genetic features of differing peoples, compiled from whole genomes of many persons sampled from each modern population. Earlier genetic studies used only a few sites on the genome, and the new whole-genome studies are confirming some earlier findings and refuting others. The book “Who we are and how we got here” by David Reich is a summary of the latest findings, continent by continent, up to its publication at the start of 2018.

  2. telescoper Says:

    The Celts only began to arrive in Ireland around 500 BC so the monuments at Newgrange etc were already ancient when they found them. It seems that the Bronze Age civilisation that preceded them had already collapsed by the time they arrived.

    • telescoper Says:

      It also seems likely that they were abandoned long before the celts arrived, so the celts had to try imagine what had happened. Nobody knows why the late Bronze Age civilisation collapsed so totally throughout Europe.

    • telescoper Says:

      Some people think their lifestyle became unsustainable because of deforestation and/or change in climate, but disease is also a possibility. It could have been a combination of many factors.

  3. An interesting article in medium;
    View at

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      When I encounter a piece of writing that makes a startling claim which I cannot immediately evaluate against the evidence, I start by seeing if the parts of that essay which do overlap with my knowledge are reliable.

      The following paragraph gives me cause for concern:

      Every attempt was made to delete the druids from history, in particular by the Romans as they furiously destroyed the libraries, schools and temples of the ancient world, including the great library of Alexandria.

      The Romans did not “furiously destroy” anything of the culture of the ancient world. Their strategy for empire was to be almost wholly indifferent to local cultures provided that their subject peoples accepted Roman hegemony without uprising and paid the taxes levied. They invaded Israel in 63BC and left the Temple in Jerusalem to its own devices as the four gospels attest; it was destroyed in an uprising fully 134 years later. The Roman empire was pagan and religiously tolerant, and it was during that time that it grew to its fullest extent. After it became institutionally Christian and religiously intolerant in the fourth century its western half quickly collapsed, for reasons which are still debated among historians today. The Romans did, however, require cases that were capital under local law to be referred to them (one source for this is the gospel of John, 18:31), and the Druids enacted human sacrifice according to Lucan, Cicero and Diodorus Siculus:

      Far from “furiously destroying” temples in ancient Greece, the Romans adopted Greek higher culture when they invaded Greece in 146BC. Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit, as the Roman poet Horace later put it: Captive Greece captured her savage conqueror.

      There was indeed some destruction of pagan temples after the empire went institutionally Christian in the 4th century, which is what this paragraph seems to refer to – but not very much, for the greatest Temple complex in Greece, the Acropolis, survived. In any case, this was long after the Romans first encountered the druids. As for the library at Alexandria, according to its Wikipedia page it suffered from an accidental fire during Julius Caesar’s time there and from battles in 272 and 297, and there is a report that it was deliberately torched when Islam arrived there – but that report is from centuries after, and hence unreliable.

      No serious historian of antiquity would have written that confused and confusing paragraph.

      • telescoper Says:

        I’m not sure what the Druids have to do with the library at Alexandria anyway!

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Not lightning, Phillip! The Parthenon, which had in turn been used for pagan, Christian then Islamic worship, took a direct hit from a Venetian fleet while the Turks (of whose empire Greece was then part) were using it to store ammunition in 1687.

        In its original pagan era it held this statue of Athena:

      • telescoper Says:

        I prefer the one on the front of the Athenaeum…

      • telescoper Says:

        Not the Blitz either

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        This is quite a story about lightning and military explosive:

        One mine to go…

      • I certainly agree the essay has holes in it. I just posted it, because I found the premise, of Ireland as Atlantis, interesting. Here is another interesting article, by the same author, on a similar subject, also with various holes;
        View at

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Not ambitious enough. Clearly the Iliad and Odyssey describe a transatlantic war.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Yet Homer said that Poseidon watched the Trojan War from “the wooded top of Thracian Samos”, ie the highest mountain on Samothrace. Schliemann’s site has the top of Samothrace visible in the distance over the island of Imbros. Michael Wood writes (in his book “In search of Troy”),

        Of its general location in the story there has never been any dispute. The topographical landmarks are all familiar and easily placed: the Dardanelles themselves, the islands of Imbros, Samothrace and little Tenedos. Mount Ida to the south-east, and the river Samander which flowed down through the foothills of Ida.

        These places are named by Homer, who adds that the Greeks had a base for the war on Tenedos.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Wilkens’ book, hypothesising that Troy is just south of Cambridge, looks priceless:

        Evidently the Trojan War is an allegory for the rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge. These universities might be older than you think. To gain the same legal privileges as Oxford, Cambridge in the 15th century forged a papal bull, bearing the date AD624, stating that Pope Honorius (d.638) had studied at Cambridge:

        The claim was accepted. We should perhaps consider that it is not a forgery and that both universities date back to prehistoric times.

      • telescoper Says:

        It seems some of the staff do…

  4. He was also a great believer in the afterlife and spiritualism, and fell out with Houdini over it. His Prof Challenger story The Land of Mist supported his beliefs.

  5. “Reminds me of alleged elaborate conspiracies and cover-ups: they can’t be that secret if run-of-the-mill radio personalities know about them. Similarly, considering that almost everyone has heard of the Druids, I doubt that “every attempt” was made but, if so, none were very successful.”

    One thing they were quite successful at was eliminating any serious conceptual challenge to monotheism. An interesting author on Greek history was Gilbert Murray. One of his points was that the Ancients were not totally ignorant of monotheism, but as there was no division between culture and civics, it equated to authoritarianism. As in one god, one ruler. While pantheism was more along the lines of multiculturalism. Diverse tribal organisms organizing into city and nation states, as in many factions, many gods. Consider that under monotheism, monarchy was the default political model. “Divine right of kings.” While democracy and republicanism originated in pantheistic societies.
    It was when the West went back to more populist forms of government, that it required a separation of church and state, culture and civics.
    The logical fallacy of monotheism is that a spiritual absolute would be the essence of sentience, from which we rise, not an ideal of wisdom and judgement, from which we fell. The fact that we are aware, than what we are aware of.
    All the ideologies that have sought to replace monotheism and monarchy have also tended to treat their ideals as absolute and beyond question. From the Terrors of the French Revolution, to current cancel culture. Resulting in that spiral into the abyss, where all nuance and debate is forbidden.
    The reality tends to be more of the feedback of yin and yang, than God Almighty.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Monotheism is not as clear-cut a concept as it may seem. If two tribes each acknowledge one god only, what happens – intellectually speaking – when they meet?

      1. They acknowledge that there are two gods.

      2. They find their scriptures are totally compatible and merge them.

      3. They find their scriptures are incompatible.

    • The impetus for monotheism does go to the sense of a tribal soul, of which the people are constantly regenerating cells, yet the organism exists in an ecosystem. Nodes and networks.
      It is that more fundamental duality that needs to be better conceptually explored, not just dismissing religion as organized superstition. That only divorces logic from any serious examination of our cultural roots.
      A good book is The Five Stages of Greek Religion, by Gilbert Murray;

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