The sun is shining and summer is in full swing, but beyond the crowds and festivities of the season, shadows lurk on the edges of our bright world. Maybe the crashing waves on the shores of your local beach are filled with the songs of mischievous sirens and water sprites, and are those fireflies or Napaeae floating effervescently through your garden at night? A fellow hiker’s flashlight bobbing just ahead of you on the trail, or is that a will-o-the-wisp meant to lead you to certain peril?
Let us take the darkened path into the forest, away from the sunlight and what we know to be safe, and meet some of the creatures who often inspire the tales we tell.
In Caribbean folklore, different words are used to describe the human spirit, depending on what it’s doing or its current state, and so a shadow is called ai-akaru while a spirit that has left the body permanently is called aka-tomba. There is a Spirit of the Hand, and another of the Heart, and so on and so forth. The Aka, or Akari, is the fairy (or spirit) that resides inside a person’s head and is responsible for a human’s dreams. When the Akari goes walking at night—usually kidnapped by the Bush spirit Yurokon—a person is said to have dreams or nightmares, depending on the nature of the journey. If Yurokon forgets to return Akari to the human head at dawn, the person it belongs to will die. Interesting fact: when a person dies, it’s commonly said that their spirit has “returned to the forest” forever.
Sometimes classified as ogres, the Alan are human-bird hybrids of the Philippine Islands. The Alan have elongated fingers and toes that point backwards, which helps them hang upside down from trees when resting. Grotesque but benign, they are also rumored to take in and care for children who have become lost in the jungle. In addition to adopting lost children, the Alan procreate by collecting the afterbirth—and sometimes blood—of humans that they then mold in their own image. Most myths populated by these creatures depict the Alan as lesser fairies, often mistreated or tricked by humans. Despite these injustices, the Alan are considered a friendly branch of the fairy family tree.
The delightfully bizarre tale of Kate Crackernuts comes from the Orkneys, near the northeastern coast of Scotland. In the original story, a king and queen marry, each with a daughter named Kate, however the king’s Kate is far lovelier than the queen’s Kate, and so the queen becomes terribly jealous. She seeks the aid of a hen-wife who spoils the girl’s good looks by turning her head into that of a sheep. This happens to her after peering into a pot of boiling water, where the sheep’s head leaps out and attaches itself to her!
Though the queen hates Kate for her beauty, her own daughter loves her step-sister and the two girls run away together following the enchantment of Kate’s head. Both Kates take up residence in another kingdom, where a new king and queen reside with their two sons. The queen’s Kate becomes a kitchen maid and a nurse to the king’s ailing son, and the king’s Kate (now with a sheep’s head) is allowed to live in the attic, out of sight.
At night, the prince takes the queen’s Kate into the forest where she meets the fairy folk. Through a series of events, Kate is able to trick a fairy youth into giving her various tools that allow her to heal her sister and the prince. Once Kate’ beauty is restored, the two sisters are married to both princes and live happily ever after.
Kate Crackernuts is a perfect example of how fairy magic can be used both to harm and to heal. The imagery of the sheep’s head is fantastically gruesome, but we also see how human cleverness can be rewarded in fairyland.
So concludes this month’s adventure in Tir Na nOg. Remember, as you’re basking in the sun’s warm summer glow, fishing in your backyard stream, or enjoying the shade of the evergreen trees, creeping at the edges of our world is another one filled with specters, temptations, and mischief. Perhaps tonight, before you blow out the last candle and prepare to sleep, you’ll consider leaving an offering of cream or a shiny nickel for the fae… just in case.