Leannán Sídhe of Irish Folklore
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Mention the word "fairy" to almost anyone, and they'll probably think of a tiny human that flits around with translucent wings and a trail of sparkling dust. Most of that image might come from Disney™. But if you look into stories a bit older than Peter Pan, you'll find things aren't nearly as innocent and playful as Tinker Bell.
Irish folklore is full of fairies; some stories are about creatures that could be considered benevolent and maybe even "good," but other tales are of strange and dangerous beings with motives incomprehensible by humans. There are so many types of fairies in Irish folklore that entire books have been written on the subject, like Irish Fairy and Folk Tales by W.B. Yeats, first published in 1888. I'm sure I'll write about more of them in the future, but let's look at a creature from Irish folklore called the Leannán Sídhe.
Pronunciation & Spelling
Leannán sídhe, leanan sídhe, leannán sidhe, leannan-sìthe—there seems to be more than a handful of ways to spell this. I'm guessing that one of the correct spellings is leannan-sìthe, as found on LearnGaelic in an actual English & Gaelic dictionary.
LearnGaelic is an excellent resource I've mentioned before, and I'm sure I'll be using it again. You can hear the pronunciation of the word on the page I just linked to and a recording right here on Forvo.
Usually, I'd put my own pronunciation guide here for a rough approximation, but I'm no expert on this Gaelic, so you're probably better off taking a quick listen to those links above. There are three different ways to pronounce the letter 'L' in Gaelic, and I believe the 'L' at the beginning of leannan-sìthe is called the Slender L.
Now, if you're looking for more of an English pronunciation of a Gaelic word, I can probably manage that. It's pretty simple, but the original Gaelic version sounds much better to my ears. In this article, I'm going to use what seems to be the more common English spelling of the word: leannán sídhe.
Here's a rough approximation of an English pronunciation of leannán sídhe: leh-non-shee.
But, seriously, just listen to the Gaelic recordings.
A Bit About Ireland
As an American, I have a strong background with decades of programming from ignorant iconic mascots with accents that don't exist anywhere in the world (particularly in Ireland), mascots created to enhance manipulative marketing tactics specifically aimed at children with no care at all of the long-term health problems associated with a breakfast..."food"—not naming any names 🍀️🌈🎈 💗⭐🦄.
This, of course, means that my only exposure to Ireland was like almost all Americans: crack in a bowl full of milk as a kid and the American tradition of using St. Patrick's Day as an excuse to get blackout drunk for an entire week.
So, while what I'm about to say shouldn't come as a surprise to most of the world, the American education system tends to lack things such as the act or process of imparting or acquiring general knowledge, developing the powers of reasoning and judgment, and generally of preparing oneself or others intellectually for mature life.
As of February 2023, the island of Ireland comprises the Republic of Ireland (an independent sovereign country that covers 5/6th of the island) and Northern Ireland (part of the United Kingdom).
As far as we know, the first inhabitants of Ireland were the Celts. (Pronounced with a hard 'k' sound, not at all like the Boston Celtics.)
The Celts' history goes as far back as 517 BC when the Greek geographer Hecataeus of Miletus mentioned them. That's a very long history, and there's no way I could cram in even a fraction of anything sensible here. That being the case, I'll just leave these here: The Animated History of Ireland and The History of Ireland | Facts Everyone Should Know and History Summarized: Ireland—all three are entertaining and informative.
You might have a visual of Ireland as something like this:
Which is a decent representation of parts of Ireland, but other places look like this:
And the tone of the above photo seems a bit more fitting for the legend of leannán sídhe.
What is Leannán Sídhe?
Imagine sitting in your home one evening, and you've decided to finally take up that artistic hobby you've thought about for ages. Is it painting? Writing? Creating music? Whatever it is, you're sitting there at home, struggling to squeeze out that elusive thing called inspiration, but you just can't seem to manage it. No matter how long you stare at the wall, how many drinks you have to loosen you up, or how many posts on social media you scroll past searching for a spark to get you going, inspiration just doesn't hit.
Suddenly, a warm, delicate feminine hand slides across your neck and down your arm. No one was home with you, so as you scream, you wonder whether you should throw out your newly wet furniture or try to clean it.
The hand on your arm lingers, and the ethereal voice of a woman whispers in your ear, "Having trouble?"
You turn to find a woman more beautiful than any you've ever seen in your entire life, standing right there next to you, her hand still on your arm, an eyebrow raised questioningly toward you. Instantly, you want to say yes; you want to throw yourself at her, proclaim your love, and finally create all the art you've wanted to because the being standing by you is now your reason for living.
If you give in to those urges, you'll take on the woman as a lover and create a flurry of art unlike the world has ever seen. You'll become famous, possibly rich, and your name will forever be remembered. But, all that comes with a price: your life will be brief, and you'll quickly wither away into a husk of your former self, eventually going insane...
You guessed it.
There are stories of the leannán sídhe that say once you are dead, you aren't done. You still belong to her, and the only way to escape her grasp is to find a replacement—someone else for her to love.
The leannán sídhe is what some of us know as a muse, one with vampiric qualities. She feeds on your essence, your very soul, and in return, gives you the inspiration you so desire.
Some might take that deal, knowing full well what it means. But, the leannán sídhe is a type of fairy creature from Irish folklore, and anyone who knows anything about Irish folklore knows that none are to be trifled with.
Aos Sí, Tuatha Dé Danann, Fairies With Guns, & Skinning Corpses for Love
The aos sí (or "aes sídhe") are a supernatural race from Celtic folklore and may live in an invisible, parallel universe that co-exists with ours. The "sidhe" (pronounced like "shee") are perhaps descendants or creations of the Tuatha dé Danann from older mythology.
The sidhe aren't cute little creatures with sparkly wings. They are intelligent, powerful, and sometimes terrifying—like a force of nature deserving respect. They know how to use magic, sometimes kidnap people, can easily handle the police, use guns, and even have love magic rituals that involve skinning corpses.
And a bit more from Oxford Academic: Yeats, Faeries, and the Irish Occult Tradition | R.F. Foster.
William Butler Yeats
Inevitably, when the subject of Irish folklore, and specifically fairies, come up, the name W.B. Yates appears. He was a poet, dramatist, writer, and occultist and served two terms as Senator of the Irish Free State and won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923. He's known as one of the driving forces behind the Irish Literary Revival during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and he's directly responsible for many Irish stories and folklore making it out into the broader world.
As far as his involvement with the leannán sídhe, Yeats published a book in 1892 titled Fairy and Folk Tales with a brief description.
The Leanhaun Shee (fairy mistress), seeks the love of mortals. If they refuse, she must be their slave; if they consent, they are hers, and can only escape by finding another to take their place. The fairy lives on their life, and they waste away. Death is no escape from her. She is the Gaelic muse, for she gives inspiration to those she persecutes. The Gaelic poets die young, for she is restless, and will not let them remain long on earth—this malignant phantom.
— Irish Folk and Fairy Tales by William Butler Yeats
His description of the leannán sídhe and many other tales are either accurate, controversial, or riddled with problems—depending on who you talk to. He wasn't the first to mention this type of Irish muse by the name, though. A few years before, in 1887, there was another publication with an entry. You'll have to skip to page 257 to read about "Poet Inspiration. Eodain the Poetess" in Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland by Jane Wilde. Wilde's entry is more of a tale than a description, and it doesn't really touch on the darker aspects mentioned by Yeats.
As far as the price or the deal the leannán sídhe requires for her inspiration, the only people to know for sure are probably those who have taken it. Not susceptible to otherwordly supernaturally alluring women? Most stories depict the leannán sídhe as female, but there are a few where the leannán sídhe takes the form of a man—which means to me that it could take the form of pretty much anything.
W.B. Yeats himself lived an inspired life like one would expect of a person with their own leannán sídhe, yet he lived until the age of 73. It's probably safe to say he didn't cut a deal with one, but who knows? Especially with all of his knowledge of Irish folklore and fairies.
Relevant & Related
- Check out pages 81 and 146 of FAIRY AND FOLK TALES OF THE IRISH PEASANTRY. EDITED AND SELECTED BY W. B. YEATS to read about leannán-sidhe.
- A film from 2018 titled Muse took inspiration from the legend of leannán-sidhe. Here's the official movie trailer for Muse.
- Want to hear W.B. Yeats reciting a poem? He has quite a unique cadence and intonation that sounds like he's spellcasting or performing a ritual during recitation—which was evidently intentional. W.B. Yeats reads The Lake Isle of Innisfree.
- If you're into audiobooks, throw on the full Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish by W.B. Yeats (recorded by LibriVox) for about 11 hours of fascinating Irish folklore.
- Unclassified Encounter on YouTube has a Short Story: LEANAN SIDHE.
- I would be remiss if I didn't mention the entire Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher, which features a recurring and important character, Leanansidhe, or Lea, a faerie of the Winter Court, and Harry Dresden's faerie godmother.
- Want to read about a few odd stories near Ireland? Check out my articles: Owlman of Mawnan, Cornwall | Morgawr of Cornwall, England | Glaistig of Scottish Folklore