Naked on the Barrow-downs

The third volume of Thomas Crofton Croker’s Fairy legends and traditions of the South of Ireland (1825) runs out of Irish material and has sections on the Welsh and the then-scarce English tradition. I was struck by a section of his preface, specifically its similarity to elements of the barrow-wight sequence which occurs in “Fog on the Barrow-downs” in The Lord of the Rings. Here is Croker…

I have taken some pains to seek after stories of the Elves in England; but I find that the belief has nearly disappeared. [Yet] In Devonshire, the Pixies or Pucksies are still remembered and described as “little people and merry dancers” but I can collect no other anecdotes respecting their pranks than the two following.

About seventy years [meaning, circa 1755] since a clergyman named Tanner held two benefices between Crediton and Southmolton, adjoining each other. The farmers of both parishes attended the tithe-audit annually at his residence; and in going to the glebe-house the distant parishioners had to pass an extensive moor, intersected by numerous tracks or sheep-walks.

Although they reached their destination in safety in the morning, yet on their return they invariably found themselves “Pixy-laid,” and were compelled to pass a night of bewildered wandering upon the moor. Such recreation at Christmas was not very agreeable, and it was determined that a deputation from the parishioners should proceed to Exeter, and consult an old woman celebrated for her skill in charming away the tooth-ache. Her instructions against Pixy spells proved effectual. She directed the way-laid travellers, on reaching the verge of the moor, to strip themselves, and sit down on their clothes for five-and-thirty minutes, or more, according to the state of the weather; and so soon as they discovered the cloud which the Pixies had thrown around them to be dissipated, they might then safely proceed. By following this valuable prescription Mr. Tanner’s parishioners invariably reached their homes without further interruption from Pixy spells.”

Whatever one may think about such rustic superstition, some of the resemblances to Tolkien’s “Fog on the Barrow-downs” chapter in The Lord of the Rings are notable, in terms of:

1. All-male group journeying away from an important meeting at a friendly house.
2. A malevolent ‘cloud’ then thrown around the moorland travellers, followed by bewildered night-wandering on the moor.
3. Casting off of all clothing as a definitive ‘breaking of the spell’…

‘You won’t find your clothes again,’ said Tom, bounding down from the mound, and laughing as he danced round them in the sunlight. […] Tom shook his head, saying: ‘You’ve found yourselves again, out of the deep water. Clothes are but little loss, if you escape from drowning. Be glad, my merry friends, and let the warm sunlight heal now heart and limb! Cast off these cold rags! Run naked on the grass, while Tom goes a-hunting!'” (The Lord of the Rings)

It may also be important to someone that I note here that Anna Eliza Bray, working as a respected and careful folklorist in Devon and Cornwall under the direction of Robert Southey a decade later, found of “the little people” of the twilight that they were clearly distinguished from fairies…

“The pixies are certainly a distinct race from the fairies; since, to this hour, the elders amongst the more knowing peasantry of Devon will invariably tell you (if you ask them what pixies really may be) that these native spirits are the souls of infants, who were so unhappy as to die before they had received the Christian rite of baptism.” (Anna Eliza Bray, The Tamar and the Tavy, 1836, Vol. 1, page 172.)

Thus, perhaps, there was some ‘sympathetic’ element to the old woman’s prescription for the problem. In that, perhaps her thinking was that if the travellers were to strip ‘naked as they day they were born’, and to sit down so as to lower their height, then the “the souls of infants” might mistake them for fellow babes and thus let them pass?



An interesting call, in the latest edition of Country Life magazine. The editorial says we need a “ruralist Harry Potter“, to do what Potter did in reviving interest in learning Latin, boarding schools, school uniforms and more. This new ‘CountryPotter’ would at least aim to revive interest the wide range of wild herbage, encouraging children to learn tree types and what “a meadow clary or a hairy mallow” looks like. More ambitiously, also the old dialect words, the ins and outs of rural crafts inc. den-making, the more reliable bits of our weather-lore, the seasons and their foods, and the ways of wildlife and horses. A healthy disdain for health and safety, and irrational far-left eco-politics, would probably also add to the appeal to intelligent children in middle-childhood. It would have to be about magic in some way, tightly plotted but also epic, and probably a bit ‘alternative history’.

Views of Rome

Selected pictures from Piranesi’s Views of Rome (Vedute di Roma), of the ruins of Rome as they were when the place was still a “living in the ruins” city. I’d had it my Amazon wishlist for ages in print form, but now has it (search: Piranesi + Roma, not Rome).

Trolls discovered in Manchester

The Manchester Art Gallery‘s Director has removed a well-known Pre-Raphaelite painting “Hylas and the Nymphs” (1896) by J. W. Waterhouse, calling it an “embarrassment”.

This is obviously about the political trolls getting ‘a foot in the door’ and trying to widen the spectrum of ‘acceptable’ political censorship in art galleries. Accept this, and the next removals will be even more serious.

If I know the political far-left then their end-game is pervasive censorship of nudity (to make a ‘safe space’ for various groups), alongside a ‘Year Zero’-style erasure of the mythic past from museums and galleries. The leftist Independent newspaper gives the game away on this, with a headline which asks: “Why are we in such a hurry to erase the past?”. Which implies that the left’s political project is to “erase the past”. But that the left doesn’t want to hurriedly tip its hand too soon, and thus make the public aware of what its long-term aims are.

Thankfully it’s all futile, a powerless power-fantasy of the leftist professional elites who are rapidly loosing their status as cultural gatekeepers. So possibly the censorship in Manchester is just about the Director cynically angling for a big pay-off, when she’s sacked for bringing both the gallery and the curatorial profession into disrepute.

“Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun”

Poussin’s painting “Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun” (1658):

The painting draws on the deeply confused1. classical Greek and Roman stories of Orion, with a tilt toward the later Roman versions which emphasise the huntress Diana. Broadly these stories can be boiled down thus:

Before he was a constellation in the night sky, Orion was deemed by stories to be a giant youth and an impulsive hunter. He was an earthly being, but also a primal son of the dynamic Sea and the fertile Earth.

He was blinded due to his youthful lust, but he believed that his sight would be restored if ever he reached the seat of the rising Sun. In this he embodied the typical adolescent conflict between base impulses and lofty aspiration, something typical of humanity as a whole during prehistory.

Seen on Orion’s shoulders is the blacksmith’s assistant Cedalion. In some of the stories the blind Orion was wading the ocean and he was drawn toward the sound of the ‘source-of-all-fire’ smithy, where he picked up the fire-god’s assistant Cedalion. As shown by his orange robes in the painting, Cedalion is a primal ‘fire-associated’ being. He stands on the shoulders of the giant, and with his far-sight he tries to guide Orion to find the ever-elusive seat of the rising sun. In his guiding role Cedalion symbolises ‘the flame of knowledge’, guiding impulsive and blind humanity through its historical adolescence.2.

In this painting the rising place of the sun is hidden by storm clouds which emanate from the (implied-mystical) woodland of the goddess Diana. The edge of her deep woodland realm is seen in the bottom-right of the picture. Poussin’s picture shows the moment the goddess Diana spies and falls in love with the blind Orion.3. The figure can be identified as Diana because she wears the bow-like crescent moon on her brow and she is equipped with the bow and quiver of a woodland huntress. The green tint on her skin might be meant to indicate that her realm is that of the woodland seen in the right-hand corner.

The educated viewer of the painting would remember the next part of the general story. Infatuated, Diana will take Orion into the sky to hunt in her perpetual pre-sunrise dawn woodland. From which place he will never reach or see the earthly sunrise. Presumably his hunting skill is so superlative that he can hunt even while blinded, and possibly Diana values him partly because he loves her for herself and not for her visual beauty (which he cannot see). He of course stays too long in the pre-dawn sky — and Diana’s apparent elevation of an earth-dweller to the heavenly realm angers the gods. The gods cause Orion to be killed, with either Diana’s own arrow or a scorpion-sting.

The gods then place Orion in the night sky as the famous constellation of stars, where he is forever a hunter. But he is fixed in place in the nightly wheel of the constellations, and by sunrise he has vanished from the sky. Thus he can never again enter the pre-dawn sky to be with Diana/Aurora.

1. The first chapter of Joseph Eddy Fontenrose’s book Orion: The Myth of the Hunter and the Huntress (University of California Press, 1981) makes a valiant attempt at a concise summary and comparison of the tangled mess of stories.

2. This is an inversion of today’s understanding of the common phrase ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’, which arises from a literary culture of transmission. Here the giant is impulsive/blind, and it is the inventive ‘bright spark’ who stands atop him who has the intelligence and far-sight.

3. In the painting Diana ‘stands in’ for the rising-dawn pre-sunrise goddess Aurora, who was the protagonist in older versions of the story — in which it was Aurora who took Orion into the pre-dawn sky, and only later does Orion somehow meet Diana while hunting there.


Mothlach was a word in old Irish, meaning “rough, bushy, tangled, scraggy”, with the implication of a type of scrubbily wooded place. With the variant Mothrach being the name for an equivalent woody tangled place if the place were persistently wet and damp, such as an overgrown wet hollow.

In Welsh it took the form of the very similar mwthlach, meaning a tangled and scrubby bit of overgrown ground. Later, and within living memory in the 1900s, it was applied in parts of Wales to a soft person who was a bit of a ‘walking heap’. Presumably with the implication that a few moths or flies might be flitting about them.

The words are mentioned by Sir John Rhys in his Celtic folklore, Welsh and Manx (1901, in two volumes, I and II), and I found the variant Mothrach in an earlier Irish dictionary.

I can’t discover scholars noting a link to the Norse Myrkviðr (Anglicised as Mirkwood by William Morris and picked up by Tolkien), but the meaning is broadly similar if on a much larger scale. Myrkviðr being a “dark boundary-forest” (Tolkien) which is “untracked” (Drout, J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, p. 430) and thus implicitly defensive in military terms. Drout refers to the deeper…

   proto-Indo European roots for *mer– “to flicker,” with derivatives indicating dim states of illumination, and *merg-, “boundary, mark, border”

Interesting. Moths flicker in dim illumination, and recent linguistic scholarship seems to add a hint on the cultural connotations…

   “certain other small, often winged, creatures are marked as special by the fact that their death, unlike that of “normal” animals, can be described with forms based on the Proto-Indo-European root *mer– (as in Lat. morior), otherwise reserved for humans. (Anatolisch und Indogermanisch, 2001, Indogermanische Gesellschaft Kolloquium, page 209)

The “certain other small, often winged, creatures”… again it sounds to me like moths. The ecological habitat of a dark “trackless” wood, windless and “rough, bushy, tangled, scraggy”, would certainly be conducive to abundant moth-life. One wonders if there was an ancient perception that moths were “already-dead things” or linked with human death? I found immediate confirmation of this notion via a quick search…

   “folklore describes moths or butterflies — and occasionally, bees — which appear after a person’s death and which hold their escaping soul. Source: Henderson, George. Survivals in Belief Among the Celts. Glasgow: James MacLeose and Sons, 1911 (in The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore, 2014).

This reminded me of my recent and similar musing on a local instance in which a ‘lady well’ spirit was referred to with the curious phrase “or else an insect” by a local informant.

This brings me neatly back to Rhys’s authoritative Celtic Folklore, in which I found Mothlach. Elsewhere, on page 612 of volume 2, he notes…

   “Cornish tradition applies the term ‘pisky‘ both to the fairies and to moths, believed in Cornwall by many to be departed souls. So in Ireland: a certain reverend gentleman named Joseph Ferguson, writing in 1810 a statistical account of the parish of Ballymoyer, in the county of Armagh, states that one day a girl chasing a butterfly was chid [chided] by her companions, who said to her: ‘That may be the soul of your grandmother.’ This idea, to survive, has modified itself into a belief less objectionably pagan, that a butterfly hovering near a corpse is a sign of its everlasting happiness. … it is also stated that the country people in Yorkshire used to give the name of souls to certain night-flying white moths.”

Thus the dense tangled woods that defensively surrounded hill-forts such as The Wrekin

   “according to him [Caesar] the British idea of a town or fortress was a place with a tangled wood round it, and fortified with a rampart and ditch” (Sir John Rhys, Celtic Britain, page 53)

… would have been understood by the ancient inhabitants to be flickering at night with the souls of their recent ancestors. And these large white moths would have visited for nectar the first wood anemones — wind-stars or windflowers in the Midlands. These beautiful flowers are the first and commonest woodland flowers of the year and are likewise white, since they have no need to attract day-time insects (there are none at that time of year). The wearing of these wood anemone flowers on the lapel or in the hair was recorded by late English folklorists as deeming bad luck, and I wonder of this was originally due to their cultural association with attracting the souls of the dead (in moth form)? In this they would be rather like Tolkien’s grave-associated Simbelmyne white flowers, which likewise grow at the edge of a large hill-fort.

Sadly the excellent word mothlach doesn’t appear to have survived into English, its meaning having been superseded in use by common Norse and French words. Although in meaning “tangled, scraggy” it has a likeness to the disused Old English mothfret, meaning something moth-eaten.

But if someone wanted a title for an eclectic magazine or academic journal, then Mothlach might serve.

All around the Wrekin

My Birmingham grandmother, who grew up in mid-Staffordshire at Haywood, used a common Staffordshire and Shropshire phrase meaning ‘going all around-about on foot, in a long and tangled journey back to where you started’. This was “all around the Wrekin”. The same phrase was also used to refer to a person who verbally rambles, taking a long time to say something that could be said more directly.

The Wrekin [ree-kin] in question is a famous and impressive hill-fort of the Cornovii in nearby Shropshire, on the Welsh Marches. Its size and location indicates it was their most significant tribal centre, although they were probably still somewhat seasonally nomadic in terms of having summer and winter palaces…

[Caesar] “had ample opportunities of observing the appearance of the country, and of learning much about the inhabitants … He considered the country very thickly inhabited, and the abundance of cattle to be deserving of notice. The buildings he saw resembled those of Gaul, and were very numerous, but according to him the British idea of a town or fortress was a place with a tangled wood [the mwthlach or mothlach] round it, and fortified with a rampart and ditch; inside this they would, as Strabo tells us, build their huts and collect their cattle, but not with a view of remaining there long.” (Sir John Rhys, Celtic Britain, page 53)

These are the words of J.R.R. Tolkien’s early inspiration on matters Celtic, Sir John Rhys. He published an essay on the Wrekin and its various linguistics in 1908, and this is now online: “All around the Wrekin”, Y Cymmrodor XXI, printed November 1908.

Tolkien was familiar with Rhys from a young age. He had read Rhys’s Celtic Britain (probably in the second edition of 1884) as a boy in Birmingham. Later he very likely sat in on Rhys’s series of lectures at Jesus College, Oxford, even though Tolkien was then at another Oxford college and the lectures were not required for his degree.

Rhys’s essay on the Wrekin mostly delves very deeply in the history and word-meanings, and is as digressive as its title suggests. But everyday readers may be interested to know that, buried deep among the dense philology, Rhys notes (page 11) a similar surviving phrase of the 1900s…

“a local toast in our day describes [the district] comprehensively as: “All friends round the Wrekin”.”

Rhys passes this swiftly by and he assumes the phrase was a conflation of the people of the district with the district itself. In effect a phrase meaning that: ‘all are friends who live around the Wrekin’, because from a common stock. But the use of the phrase in print, as a dedication for the book The Recruiting Officer (1706), seems to me to indicate that it then meant something slightly different: ‘too many friends to go all-around and mention each person by name’. In the era of heavy-drinking banquets, this would have been a convenient and welcome phrase for a toast-giver, getting him out of having to remember and recount a string of names while drunk. And risk mispronouncing or forgetting people’s names. This meaning is then congruent with the modern use of “all around the Wrekin” meaning someone who verbally rambles. In effect, at a banquet it would have been easily remembered shorthand for: ‘Here’s a toast to all my friends… but I won’t go all around the Wrekin, by trying to mention each of them by name’.

One might recall Bilbo’s party speech here, at the start of The Lord of the Rings, when he thanks the…

“”Bagginses and Boffins … Tooks and Brandybucks, and Grubbs, and Chubbs, and Burrowses, and Hornblowers, and Bolgers, Bracegirdles, Goodbodies, Brockhouses and Proudfoots …” Why couldn’t he stop talking and let them drink his health?”

The more casual reader of Rhys’s essay may also find useful his appendix, where in three pages he deftly summarises a long scholarly monograph on the name Wrekin: in Mercian the name was Wreocen, going back to a Celtic Wrikon-. Later authors (1949, 1963) have tentatively suggested a relation of Wrikon- to the Welsh gwrygio, meaning something like ‘to wax (grow, swell) strong and manly | to exert strength and thus thrive’.