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Historical counterpart to the Sidhe people?
hanakotoba_fic wrote in little_details

I'm writing an urban fantasy (yes, so many of them these days!) but looking up the Sidhe - both the mounds and the supposed people of the mounds - I ran across some information that implied the Sidhe may have been either Iberian or Anglo-Saxon in origin. I am wondering if there is any more information on this?

I've tried Wikipedia and Google terms "sidhe", "pre-Celtic civilizations", "pre-Roman Iberian civilizations", "Tuatha De Danaan".

Edit: Ah yes, colonial vestiges and debunked theories! Thanks for your help, everyone - I had just heard the theory mentioned, but had no idea what the reaction was to it, if there was any credence, etc. Thanks again!

The idea that they were an earlier people has been around for ages, but by the 1930s was no longer being taken seriously by academics.

They definitely couldn't have been Anglo-Saxons; neither the Angles nor the Saxons were mentioned by Tacitus so they seem not to have been around under those identities even in Germania.

The big theory in the past was that they weIndo-re Bronze Age people who had been marginalised by big waves of invading Iron Age people. The problem with that is the high degree of genetic continuity; there seem to have been a significant number of incomers in the Bronze Age, and some in the Iron Age, both mainly in the south of Britain, but the changes were mostly people taking up new techniques. Legends talk of waves of invaders into Ireland, but legends also talk about various parts of Britain being settled from Troy, from Scythia and from Egypt (an odd one, that; the most un-Indo-European aspects of Welsh grammar and syntax, which is the only Celtic language I know much about, resemble Ancient Egyptian) so it may be necessary to cautious about taking the stories at face value.

I'm not saying that there weren't incomers, but what the archaeology indicates is that earlier inhabitants weren't marginalised in the way that would be needed but either carried on in the same part of the country doing what they did in the past or became more or less assimilated. This scenario would lead to a situation like the Sidhe being concentrated in somewhere like the extreme South West of Ireland, which is not the picture that we get from the stories.

So the sidhe may have been based on/a reference to a group of real people? Do you know any books/articles I could read? That sounds really cool. I've mostly just read Cunliffe and Pryor, and then my Celtic course mostly focused on medieval history (grr, argh).

No serious ones after the 1930s; it's rather a Victorian sort of thing. I don't currently have any references (it was in the 1960s that I first came across it) but the idea was that they were Bronze Age survivals, linking Bronze Age burial mounds and the antipathy to iron. But as I said, it was based on a model of invaders wiping out or (literally) driving underground the original inhabitants. This got rather political as it was partly based on preconceptions and archaeology has challenged it (see Pryor on the willingness of South East England to take up new fashions and behaviour).

Definitely Victorian.

it goes along with the belief that fairy tales oozed out of the primordial slime with humanity and therefore contained clues of great antiquity (that, for instance, certain fairy tales obviously stemmed from the switch from matrilineal to patrineal descent -- their confidence that there had been such a switch was another instance of it), that all myths, legends, and fairy tales were really solar myths, and that the folk customs and celebrations they found in England were obviously of ancient pagan origin, when, it turns you, you can prove them many of them were of modern, let alone medieval, origin.

Nonetheless -- I remember a book titled Impossible People I read as a child that repeated many of these origins. You might find it useful.

You'll probably find more useful results simply searching for information about the mounds in the U.K.

Most of the mounds (also called "long barrows) are from the Neolithic period, which in this area dates to 4000-2400 B.C. Neolithic means the time period of the invention of farming- people were still using stone tools, not metal, but they were beginning to settle in permanent villages, and raise plants and animals, and make pottery. In England there were also quite a few groups of nomadic cattle-herders. Both villagers and herders would have lived in very small groups, usually less than 100 people. Farming was not invented in the U.K. itself, but spread as an idea from the Middle East, via Continental Europe. Interestingly, Medieval peoples finding old stone tools may be where the idea of the Sidhe being allergic to metal (especially iron) comes from.

It is extremely unlikely that these people were "Anglo-Saxon", since the Neolithic is several thousand years before that term would become appropriate. The UK was settled by humans before the end of the Ice Age; these people would have come from Continental Europe, but it's hard to really describe them as Iberian or Anglo-Saxon; these terms don't really apply that far back in time. There were some migrations throughout Europe at the beginning of the Neolithic, as farmers moved around spreading their ideas, but the UK was relatively isolated from these movements. Basically, the people living in England during the Neolithic and building the mounds were more or less the same people who had settled the UK during the Ice Age.

There's a strong distinction to be made between long barrows, which are basically Neolithic and built around chambers containing the remains of many people, and round barrows, which are basically Bronze Age and tend to be built for an individual. There are also large round structures such as Maes Howe which are Neolithic but aren't called barrows.

"Introduction" of farming would be a better term as it spread across Europe, reaching Britain quite late.

"Anglo-Saxon" is completely inaccurate, as we know fairly exactly when they got here - after Roman society began to break down. The Anglo-Saxons, basically, are the English and are not just still here but dominant.

I'd have to disagree with you, actually! It's hard to say that there's a "strong distinction". There is a bit of a tendency for mounds to be individual graves later, and communal graves earlier, but the picture is complicated by the continuing re-use of mounds (the Hill of Tara, for instance, shows use all the way until the 6th or 7th century AD). As well, we're beginning to realize that regional variation played a big role. And, as you say, not all the mounds were graves. Nearly all of the mounds are Late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age, and there's not a huge distinction in society between the two periods (they're often lumped together in books of British History), so if the OP is interested in researching what is known about the people who built the mounds, it's much more of a Neolithic-esque culture than a Bronze Age one (no urbanism, no complex political structures, and only rare use of metal).

Your other two comments, you seem to be agreeing with me?

The picture was very clear when I was studying archaeology, and I've still got the revision file cards with diagrams of layouts of long barrows on the one hand and structures of round barrows on the other. There was a fuzzy area at the transition from Late Neolithic to Early Bronze, as with portable items. The main pattern for Bronze Age mounds was one individual for whom the mound was built followed by later interments in the sides of the mound; here too this continued until very late and includes Anglo-Saxon interments in and near round barrows.

In Britain, the only significant mound that I can think of that has been investigated and isn't known to involve burials is Silbury Hill. Even "saucer barrows" (which aren't mounds but dips in the ground surrounded by a ring of earth) involve burials.

I wouldn't say that Neolithic culture in Britain didn't involve urbanism. There are a number of extremely well fortified settlements that contained quite large areas of ground, some of which were attacked and had their defences burned - both the people fortifying them and the people attacking them needed a considerable level of organisation, and digging elaborate earthworks requires a lot more effort than is available to small settlements. And the finds from the Neolithic phases of Stonehenge indicate a sophisticated social structure, if only to organise the power, whether human or draft animals, to get the bluestones in place, let alone getting them there in the first place. The existence of such major sites as the flint mines at Grime's Grave, which supplied flint found all over the country, also indicates complex social structures.

To expand a bit, I've seen reports on Neolithic hillforts but nothing on fortified Bronze Age settlements - there seems to be a gap till the Iron Age, when similar hillforts were the most urbanised form of life till the century before the Romans, so Neolithic society in Britain seems to have been more urbanised than Bronze Age society was.

What sources are these?

Are you working with the idea that the daoine sidhe represent a previous group of humans? That's a very out-dated idea--straight out of the Victorian era, pretty much. I suppose it might do as a premise for a fictional work, but it would be hard to pull off. There's a lot of very ugly colonial-ish baggage there, things linking to Howard and Machen and Lovecraft type stuff, and I'm not talking the positive aspects of those three writers' work, either.

And if you are going with something like that, they'd certainly not be Anglo-Saxons. Anglo-Saxons invaded what's now England in the post-Roman period; they certainly weren't in Ireland before a Celtic language came to be spoken there.* As far as Iberians, the Leabhar Gabhála na hÉireann, the Book of Invasions--the mythic history of Ireland--has the Gaels coming from Iberia, and driving the Tuatha Dé Danann, who are kind of sort of probably the old pagan gods, into hiding under the earth.

I'd suggest you read up on actual folklore that will give you a sense of what people say about the Good People; that's something that's sorely lacking in most urban fantasy, where the complex, amoral, and alien** character of them tends to be washed out into simplistic confrontations between good and evil.

Eddie Lenihan's Meeting the Other Crowd is a good starting place. Stuff from new age publishing houses like Lewellyn isn't likely to be worth much. The stories in Evans-Wentz's The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries could be useful, as long as you're not putting much stock in his interpretations, but most books from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are only useful as examples of what upper and upper-middle class armchair scholars thought about the matter.

*The pre-Celtic substratum in Irish is one of these things that gets talked up and down and no end in sight to it. There's some think it's something related to Basque, some think it's something related to the Berber languages, and that's only the somewhat more likely hypotheses.
**Yet with splashes of the familiar--they play hurley and Gaelic football, and some stories have them burying their dead with recogniseably Catholic funerals, including a priest of their own, or perhaps they'd swept one for the purpose.

I used to have a compilation of folklore about the Good People but for the life of me can't remember the editor. I think it was one of the major figures in the Gaelic revival in Ireland, around that time, but it would have been highly politicized anyway.

I'll look for Meeting the Other Crowd. I enjoy complex, amoral, and alien figures in folklore, or having a set of figures (fairy, foxes, etc) be both benign and malevolent, and not just one or the other, so I'm fairly certain I'll enjoy that line of inquiry.

Thank you!

Here's a news story that links the Irish to the Iberian celts via DNA studies. Sounds like that might be something to build on.

That ties in very well with what the Classical writers said: that the inhabitants of the islands resembled most closely those of areas across the sea from them - the people of Caledonia looked like the people of Scandinavia, the people of the South East were like the people in Gaul and the people of Ireland were like the people in Spain. They thought Spain was closer to Ireland than it actually is, but it looks as though they were right about that.

As stated, it was a 19th century notion that had been soundly buried by the 1930s. Western civilization has gone through multiple waves of efforts to rationalize anything it finds irrational: 'the Sidhe were Picts' is a 19th century example, 'the ancient gods were alien astronauts' is a 20th century example.

This type of thinking usually includes an underlying assumption that the people who had the original beliefs, being from an earlier era, were somehow stupid or gullible or unimaginative, and couldn't possibly have actually possessed a rich culture or a fully legitimate religious system.

You can mine this kind of thinking for fictional ore: "The theory was debunked, but guess what! It was TRUE!" But you'll have to do your research very thoroughly, and use the source materials with a full awareness of their limitations -- otherwise you'll give the impression that you swallowed the same Kool-aid.


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