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Irish Faerie Folk of Yore and Yesterday: The Sluagh

So you’ve read of the Dullahan, who takes your life when your time is up. And you now know of the Dearg-Due, who takes your blood if she has the chance. But what about the thing that takes your soul, whenever it pleases?

Nearing Halloween, or Samhain, it seems easier to let your mind wander to darker things.  Cooler nights, blustery winds, dry leaves breaking from the trees and rustling in the dark. Shapes and forms manifest where before there were only shadows. And it is out of those shadows, and a westerly wind, that the Sluagh (also called the Underfolk, The Wild Hunt, or The Host of Unforgiven Dead), has haunted Irish folklore for thousands of years.

The foulest and most dreaded of the realm of Faerie, the Sluagh (pronounced SLOO-AH) was more feared than even Death itself. Death was easy. The Sluagh, now that was something entirely different. Even Death has no choice but to defer to the Sluagh, in an otherworldly race for the immortal souls of the living.

sluagh

Peter Nicolai Arbo – Åsgårdsreien, a Norse version of Wild Hunt (1872)

The Sluagh, meaning “host” in Irish, is a group formed from the darkest, most vile creatures imaginable. Prior to the introduction of Christianity into Scotland and Ireland, the Sluagh was more closely associated with “Fae gone amuck,” if you will. They were believed to be some ill-begotten form of faerie folk, with no reason, no loyalty, and no mercy. However, once Christianity came upon the isles, the Sluagh was transformed into a pack of unforgiven, unrepentant, dead sinners.  Yes…the Sluagh were thought to be once human.

And humans are still very much their prey. The Sluagh exists on stealing the souls of the living, and especially the dying. Huddling and hiding in forgotten and dark places, they lay in wait for nightfall. Once the sun has left the sky, they strike out, in what, to the untrained or unsuspecting eye, appears to be a vast and ominous flock of large ravens or other birds. Flapping wings, screeching, and a whirlwind of undulating shadows are all you’d witness as the Sluagh descends for an attack. Owing to the folklore of the Wild Hunt, countless cultures and legends still link black birds (and especially ravens) as evil omens or signals of upcoming misfortune.

In Irish mythology, the Sluagh were said to fly in from the west to steal a dying soul before it was given Last Rites. To this day, doors and windows on the west sides of houses are kept closed if there is a sick or dying person at home.

However…and it would be in your best interest to pay attention to this…it is possible to also inadvertently call the Sluagh to you, by two means. One is by the mere utterance of the word “Sluagh.” Admittedly, that bit had been injected into the myth long before the introduction of the computer or the Internet, so I’m not quite sure if typing or reading the word is thought to trigger the call. Either way, both me writing it, and you reading it, will test that part of the legend together, I suppose. After sundown, of course.

The second means to call the Sluagh, is through the silent hopelessness of one’s heart. All of us have felt that crushing weight of sadness or loss at one time or another.  Long has it been said that a person could “die of a broken heart.”  But, is it the sadness, or the Sluagh, that finally finishes you off? Only the dead know…and they’re staying frustratingly mum on the subject.

Be warned: once you’ve drawn the attention of the Wild Hunt, only by placing another in their path will you dissuade them. You must be willing to sacrifice another to be taken in your stead. Then again, if you’re willing to do that, your soul might possibly belong amongst the ranks of the unrepentant, unforgiven sinners, so you may end up as one of the Sluagh after all.

Of course, the Sluagh is not opposed to taking the souls of the happy, healthy, and living, either. In fact, those are the souls sweetest for them to take. Although, admittedly, prying the soul from the body of an otherwise healthy and happy victim does sometimes present a challenge. Unlike with creatures such as Medusa (the Gorgon), if you should happen to catch sight of the Host of Unforgiven Dead, it is not an immediate death sentence. They can be blocked, or evaded, by running (or staying) in doors after dark, or by not tempting fate walking alone in secluded, unpopulated areas (dark forests, empty streets, etc.).  Living or dying, sinners or not, all souls are ripe for the picking of the Sluagh. And once a soul is taken, there is no mercy, no release to the afterlife or the underworld, and no escape. You are simply doomed to circle the darkened skies, stealing souls, for all eternity.

Now, if you do happen to catch sight of a member of the Underfolk, it would no doubt be one you won’t quickly forget. Haggard and thin, skin barely clinging to bone in a pitiful version of what used to be human form, the Sluagh are bird-like even when not in flight. Leathery wings are kept close to their bodies, forming a weathered sort of cape or cloak. Hands and feet of bony claws, sparse strings of dark hair covering their heads, gnarled pointed teeth protruding from a beak-like mouth… their looks do not lend themselves to blending easily with the living. So they keep to the Wild Hunt, they keep to the night skies, where their form can morph and utilize the darkness and the shadows.

While the origins of the Sluagh largely stem from Scotland and Ireland over a thousand years ago, there are accounts found in many countries of beings fitting the description of the Wild Hunt; the German, French, Czech, Polish, Scandinavian, and Russian cultures all have some version of the creatures, in mad pursuit, riding the winds for hapless souls.  Some thought the sight of them was a prelude to war or some terrible widespread catastrophe.

As late as 1911, a scholar named W.Y. Evans-Wentz, travelled through Ireland, Scotland, and England from 1908–1910, collecting local, first-hand descriptions of experiences with the Fae, publishing them in his book, The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries. Included among the stories was an account from Barra in Scotland. A child was “taken” by the Sluagh, and only after the soul of the child had been extracted, the lifeless body was dropped from a “great height” and found outside at the back of the house the next morning. Wentz also gathered many reports of Sluagh sightings, all eerily similar: a vast, swarming, churning cloud of large black birds. Apparently, in towns that the birds flew over, there was a spike in the incidence of death among the populations. Coincidence? Maybe. But the Sluagh was every bit as real to the townsfolk as the bread on their tables or the sheep in their fields. Superstition and belief was, and is, a potent mixture. A mixture that is still very much in play today in parts of the Celtic and British Isles.

Illustration 14 for “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe

So the next time you see a flock of birds travelling the skies at night, even if you think this is just the fluff of fairytales and the nonsense of nightmares, look more closely at those winged creatures. Which direction are they flying? Are they abnormally large? Can you make out anydetails at all, as you stand there, futilely straining your eyes in the pitch-black night?  How have you been feeling lately? Slightly ill? You haven’t been brooding over a lost love, have you? Oh, but I forgot…you’re a grown up. Never mind. They are probably just regular ol’ birds. Probably.

Perhaps that was what the narrator in Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, The Raven, thought as well, when he heard the tapping at his chamber door. Was his dark, hopeless depression and heartache enough to summon the Sluagh? If we look more closely at that raven, and at the references to “soul” and “shadow” in the poem, will we see a more “folklorish” inspiration?

 

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
  Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
    While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
   As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
  “‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door-
                Only this, and nothing more.”

 

    Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
  And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
    Eagerly I wished the morrow;- vainly I had sought to borrow
    From my books surcease of sorrow- sorrow for the lost Lenore-
  For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore-
                Nameless here for evermore.

 

    And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
  Thrilled me- filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
    So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating,
    “‘Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door-
  Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;-
                This it is, and nothing more.”

 

    Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
  “Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
    But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
    And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
  That I scarce was sure I heard you”- here I opened wide the door;-
                Darkness there, and nothing more.
 

    Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering,
        fearing,
  Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortals ever dared to dream before;
    But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
    And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore!”
  This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!”-
                Merely this, and nothing more.
 

    Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
   Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
    “Surely,” said I, “surely that is something at my window lattice:
    Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore-
  Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;-
                ‘Tis the wind and nothing more.”

 

    Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and
        flutter,
  In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore;
    Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed
        he;
    But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door-
  Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door-
                Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

 

   Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
  By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore.
   “Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no
        craven,
   Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the Nightly shore-
  Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”
                Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

 

    Much I marveled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
  Though its answer little meaning- little relevancy bore;
    For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
    Ever yet was blest with seeing bird above his chamber door-
  Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
                With such name as “Nevermore.”

 

    But the raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
  That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
    Nothing further then he uttered- not a feather then he fluttered-
    Till I scarcely more than muttered, “other friends have flown
        before-
  On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before.”
                Then the bird said, “Nevermore.”

 

     Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
  “Doubtless,” said I, “what it utters is its only stock and store,
     Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
     Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore-
  Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
                Of ‘Never- nevermore’.”

 

    But the Raven still beguiling all my fancy into smiling,
  Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and
        door;
    Then upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
    Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore-
  What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous bird of yore
                Meant in croaking “Nevermore.”

 

    This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
  To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core;
    This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
    On the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamplight gloated o’er,
  But whose velvet violet lining with the lamplight gloating o’er,
                She shall press, ah, nevermore!

 

    Then methought the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
  Swung by Seraphim whose footfalls tinkled on the tufted floor.
    “Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee- by these angels he
        hath sent thee
    Respite- respite and nepenthe, from thy memories of Lenore!
  Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”
                Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

 

    “Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!- prophet still, if bird or
        devil!-
  Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
    Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted-
    On this home by horror haunted- tell me truly, I implore-
  Is there- is there balm in Gilead?- tell me- tell me, I implore!”
                Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

 

    “Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil- prophet still, if bird or
        devil!
  By that Heaven that bends above us- by that God we both adore-
    Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
    It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore-
  Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”
                Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

 

    “Be that word our sign in parting, bird or fiend,” I shrieked,
        upstarting-
  “Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!
    Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
    Leave my loneliness unbroken!- quit the bust above my door!
  Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my
        door!”
               Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

 

    And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
  On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
    And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
    And the lamplight o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the
        floor;
  And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
                Shall be lifted- nevermore!

                                                       

Edgar Allan Poe circa 1849

                   ~ “The Raven,” Edgar Allan Poe

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read all posts in this series

Guest post contributed by:
Kim McNamara-Wilson

Image Credits:

Aasgaardreien
Nevermore
Spooky Birds At Sunset
Illustration 14 for The Raven Edgar Allen Poe

2 comments

  1. Another beautifully written post Kim! I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I had goose bumps when reading this because of the following:
    1. I’m reading this on Halloween
    2. You posted it on my birthday
    3. My name means “raven haired” in many Celtic translations
    4. And I am a HUGE Poe fan and have many raven inspired possessions

    YIKES

  2. Utterly fascinating post–truly took my breath away! And I love your reference to Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries. I read that entire book and found it so rich & interesting. Thank you for bringing to light this unique fairy lore and its history : )

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