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The demonic Otherworld race of Irish, Scottish and Manx mythology and folklore.
All spelling, names and terms in Modern Irish unless stated otherwise.
The modern singular and plural forms of the name are:
Fomhórach “Under-Demon (Phantom, Monster)”
Fomhóraigh “Under-Demons (Phantoms, Monsters)”
The name is derived from the following words:
Fo- (faoi-) “Under (Beneath, Below)”
*Móraigh “Demons (Phantoms, Monsters)”
*Mórach “Demon (Phantom, Monster)”
Scottish: Famhair (gs. Famhair, pl. Famhairean)
Manx: Foawr (gs. Foawir, pl. Foawir)
The Fomhóraigh are a race of supernatural beings or people found in the indigenous literary and folkloric traditions of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. They originate in the religious beliefs of the pre-Christian Gaelic peoples and feature as the traditional opponents of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the Christian-assimilated pantheon of the north-western Celts. Their influence was to remain in all three Gaelic nations, albeit greatly debased and diluted, and is still to be found in some contemporary works of fiction, drama and art.
Since the Fomhóraigh were drawn from the oral religious beliefs of the Gaelic peoples the early Christian scribes sought to assimilate their race to the new Church-approved literature they were creating in the great monastic centres of Medieval Ireland. However like the Tuatha Dé Danann the adaptation of the Fomhóraigh was strongly influenced by the pre-Christian traditions surrounding them, notably their rivalry with the Tuatha Dé and their occasional monstrous or abnormal human forms. This resulted in the worse aspects of their character being given added emphasis by the historiographers leading to an early equation with various grotesque races drawn from Christian mythology, particularly the misshapen offspring of the Old Testament figure Ham. Later inspiration from Classical sources, in particular the legends of the Titans and the Gigantes, pushed this image even further away from the source materials. As a result the Fomhóraigh are frequently presented in modern Irish and Scottish folklore as physically larger than life or as actual giants.
Fomhóraigh (the modern form of an earlier Middle Irish Fomhóire) is almost certainly pre-Christian in origin and is generally accepted to be a compound name with the first half derived from the Old Irish word fo- (Modern Irish faoi) “under, below, beneath”. However the second half of the name is more difficult to translate with three opposing schools of thought. The first favours a derivation from the Old Irish mur (Modern Irish muir) “sea”, which taken with fo- gives a meaning along the lines of “Undersea Ones”. This translation is close to an explanation of the name offered by some late Medieval Irish scribes who believed that the elements making up the word Fomhóraigh were linked to the sea. However this may have been a case of monastic scholars seeking out an interpretation for a name they no longer understood and devising one out of the semantic similarities between the words –mhór and mur (no doubt the perceived symbolism between the Fomhóraigh and the sea-borne Scandinavian incursions of the 9th to 11th centuries helped promote such an idea). The second interpretation suggests mór “great” with a number of possible translations such as the “Under Great Ones” or “Under Giants” (“under” again as in the sense of “underground”). Later in Irish myth and folklore Fomhórach is equated with the word Fathach “Giant” (pl. Fathaigh) which gives some credence to this meaning.
However a third offering is a suggested (but not actually extant) Old Irish word *mor / *mór “demon, phantom” (in Modern Irish this would be rendered *mórach with a plural of *móraigh though the word itself has not survived in the spoken language). This term is thought to be found in the important female deity name Mórríon “Demon, Phantom Queen” and Fomhóraigh could thus be translated as “Under-Demons, -Phantoms” (again, probably in the sense of “underground, below ground, subterranean”). This is the meaning accepted here since it enjoys the greatest academic support.
The Fomhóraigh and the Tuatha Dé Danann
The earliest surviving texts in Irish literature reflect the original subterranean sense of the Fomhóraigh’s name, depicting them as dwelling beneath the surface of the earth and sea. This clearly placed them in the context of the Irish Otherworld. This was also the domain of the gods, in the guise the Tuatha Dé Danann, and the Fomhóraigh were most frequently encountered in the mythological tradition as the Tuatha Dé’s enemies. However, one should be careful not to offer a simplistic interpretation of the rivalry between the Fomhóraigh and the Tuatha Dé Danann. Both groups interacted, intermarried and shared some names, titles and personages in common. Two extremely rare names applied to both illustrate this: Na Daoine Teathrach “The People of Teathra” and Fir Teathrach “Men (People) of Teathra”. Teathra (gs. Teathrach) was a Fomhórach who for a time ruled the Tuatha Dé in the more literary accounts of early Irish history. His name can be interpreted as a poetical one for the “sea” and the use of it shows the complexity of Tuatha Dé and Fomhóraigh relationships.
This has led to the suggestion that the Tuatha Dé Danann and Fomhóraigh represented one pantheon of gods, and the division between both mistakenly arose out of the reinterpretations made by the Early Christian redactors when they assimilated the old pre-Christian myths to their new body of Irish literature and history. A variation of this idea argues for two broad divisions of a single community of the gods, with one (the Fomhóraigh) viewed as slightly more hostile or “demonic” than the other. Related to this is another theory stating that the differences between both sets of Otherworldly beings reflected class divisions in the community of the gods, with the aristocratic and noble classes on one hand and a commoner class on the other (so reflecting the class system of then contemporary Irish society).
However, the differences between the concept and portrayal of the “Gods” and “Under-Demons” seems to go much further than mere class, and is a more fundamental, if fluid, one. The monstrous and violent attributes of the Fomhóraigh were always there, though exaggerated in the texts written by the Christian scribes, especially as the literature developed. It seems highly likely that they were indeed rivals to the Tuatha Dé Danann. Yet this rivalry did not prevent personal and communal interaction between both, though it is probable that some beings were erroneously ascribed to the Tuatha Dé or Fomhóraigh camps in the incorporation of the mythology into the new literary tradition, compounding the confusion found in the legends.
Related to this discussion a comparison with the Germanic traditions of continental Europe and England is essential for exploring the literary inheritance of the Celtic peoples. Taking the division of the Scandinavian pantheon into two closely related groups, the Æser and the Vaner (who were probably identical with the Alver or “Elves”), one finds some similarities with the Tuatha Dé and the Fomhóraigh. However a far closer comparison for the Fomhóraigh is to be found the opponents of the gods in the Scandinavian and Germanic myths, namely the Jotne. This title has been somewhat inaccurately translated as “Giants” and in modern folklore and retellings emphasis has been placed on their supposed monstrous size and nature (as with the Fomhóraigh). Yet in the original mythological stories the Jotne are often far from abnormal in physical form, let alone giants. Just like the Fomhóraigh they can appear as beautiful men and women, little different from the “gods” with whom they freely mate and produce offspring. Indeed at times it is difficult to discern where exactly the line should be drawn between “the gods” and “the giants” since such fluidly exists between them. Of course the very same thing could be said of the relationship between the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Fomhóraigh.
The suggestion that the literary form of the Fomhóraigh is simply a confused amalgamation of a lower class of gods and “anti-gods”, though not without merit, must be tested against the more plausible theory discussed above that what we have is an original – and actually quite intact – representation of a race of beings separate from “the gods” but yet closely related. This race can interact, interbreed and intermarry with the gods and though at times some may act in a hostile manner or take on a monstrous form they are little different from their divine opponents. This places them in much the same position as their Germano-Scandinavian equivalents, the Jotne.
The association of the Fomhóraigh with the world under the sea (and lakes) may have led to the later medieval reinterpretation of their name as the “Undersea Ones (Beings, Monsters)” referred to above. This in turn was influenced by the Scandinavian (Viking) raids and invasions of Ireland and Scotland from the 9th century CE onwards, leading to the Fomhóraigh developing more aquatic associations and an overseas origin.
Appendix I: The Names of the Domain of the Demons or the Demonic Otherworld
Insí Tuaisceartach “Northern Islands”
Túr Bhalair “Tower of Balar”
Túr Chonainn “Tower of Conann” (also appears erroneously as Túr Chonaing “Tower of Conaing”; Conang is a late adaption of an Old English name)
Má Teathrach “Plain of Teathra (the Sea)”
Lochlann “Lake Land (Land of Lakes)”
Lochlann is one of the most debated of Irish placenames, and generally refers to Scandinavia in later Irish literary and annals usage (indeed it is the modern Irish term for the Scandinavian region). It may derive from the Irish word loch “lake” and a borrowed Scandinavian word for “land”, Gaelicised as lann, lainn. Or it may be a Gaelicised version of an existing Scandinavian name for a new Viking settlement in Scotland (a hitherto unattested *Lodland). This makes the name almost certainly of 10th century origin or later following the Scandinavian (Viking) incursions in Ireland and Scotland (the name may have come from Scottish sources if this particular theory is correct).
But in the earliest texts it appears as Laithlinn, Lathlinn. This can be translated variously as “Warrior(s) Pool, Lake, Sea” or “Marshy, Swampy Pool, Lake, Sea” and be a type of kenning for the ocean, and making its use older than the Scandinavian presence in the Celtic Isles. Or, again, it could be a Gaelicised version of the proposed Scandinavian territorial name above (Norse Lodland to Old Irish Lathlinn to Midddle/Modern Irish Lochlann. However it has been argued that this semantic sequence, though attractive, is linguistically untenable).
Appendix II: Names Of The Most Prominent Fomhóraigh Figures
This list is a sample of the more commonly encountered figures from the indigenous Irish, Scottish and Manx literary traditions, presented in Modern Irish spelling with alternative spellings, versions and sobriquets.
Balar son of Buaraineach (aka. Balar Bailcbhéimneach, Balar Biorógdhearc, Balar Béimneach) [gs. Balair]
Breas son of Ealadha and Éire (aka. Eochaidh Breas)
Ceithle [gs. Ceithleann]
Conann / Conang [gs. Conainn / Conaing]
Ealadha son of Dealbhaodh [gs. Ealadhach]
Inneach mac Dé Domhnann
Morc [gs. Moirc]
Teathra [gs. Teathrach]
Eithne / Eithle daughter of Balar [gs. Eithneann / Eithleann]
Appendix III: Beings Thought To Be Similar
Fathach (gs. & npl. Fathaigh, gpl. Fathach) “Giant”
As Irish mythology developed the Fomhóraigh were often regarded as Fathaigh “Giants” (Old Irish aitheach “giant”) and greater emphasis was placed on their prodigious size and stature. The term was also applied to some mortal or legendary heroes, particularly in the folkloric period, such as the very late tales of Fionn mac Cumhaill. Its clear that Irish versions of “Giant” stories are partly derived from the imagery associated with the Fomhóraigh mixed with Classical influences, and in recent centuries English and Germanic fairylore.
© An Sionnach Fionn
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