Fairytales, folklore, legends and myths carry the values and beliefs of their culture of origin. In a pre-scientific world, unpredictable events and unexplainable occurrences were rationalised with an array of malevolent and benign mystical forces; faeries, gods, goddesses, angels, demons and spirits, all of which offered reason.
In history, swords were drawn most often where wheat stalks lapped against the peoples knees most abundantly. I was brought up in the remote northern landscapes of Caithness, in the far north of Scotland, where between the 9th and 12th century fierce battles were fought between Celtic and Norse cultures who clashed for supremacy over the regions wealthy agricultural lands and fish rich coastlines.
THE NORTHERN MYTH GENERATOR
In 2006, while undertaking a research project in Caithness is northern Scotland I rented a cottage on Olrig Hill at Weydale, in the parish of Olrig, just east of Thurso.
I lived right on the tideline between ancient Celtic and Norse worlds and the surrounding landscapes were awash with seductive tales of Celtic fairies and brutal, violent stories involving demonic entities from Odin’s demonic war cabinet. On the edge of the moor behind my cottage, a 30 feet (9 m) high grassy hillock edged the surrounding flat fields known by the highly unusual name 'Sysa Hillock' or 'Sysa', but locally it is referred to as Faerie Hill.
Sysa is located on an ancient route between Thurso and Wick and can be found at Ordnance Survey grid reference ND169647.
Caithness is peppered with Neolithic burial cairns, some dated to 6000 years old, and these are interlaced with crumbling iron-age brochs dated to about 2000 years old.
Sysa is located on the southern slope of the hill of Olrig and from the top of Sysa looking south it "gently rolls into a green hollow" where a healing spring once served the medical requirements of the local folk. This dominant position overlooking several miles of fertile wheat fields would have served well in agricultural rituals and ceremonies. Like so many before me, I suspected Sysa was an unexplored Neolithic sepulchral mound, and I was to find answers within the local mythologies.
Two particular and enduring myths are associated to Sysa. The first is of Norse origin and connects the mound with a powerful Viking warrior and the demonic Valkyries of the god Odin, but we will skip this tale for the meantime as it will be featured in my next article. The myth which is the focus of this article is known in Caithness as The Piper of Windy Ha' and has roots in Celtic faerie lore. At a rudimentary level within this myth I have made a set of observations, astronomical archetypes, which towards the end of this article I will bring from the Land of the Faeries into our real-world. But we will begin by unfolding the multi-layered story of The Piper of Windy Ha'.
THE PIPER OF THE WINDY HA’
Chapter 2 of J.T. Calder’s 1887 book Civil And Traditional History Of Caithness recounts this story of a Caithness farmer being seduced by the Faerie Queen and vanishing into the Sysa hillock, never to be seen again. It goes...
A long time ago, a young man called Peter left his home, Windy Ha', on the north slope of the hill of Olrig. Around noon Peter stopped to drink from the well of Sysa on “a warm and beautiful day in the “leafy month of June - on one of natures holidays“. Peter soon felt “irresistible drowsiness, like that produced by mesmerism, stole over him, and he finally fell fast asleep till near sunset”. He was awoken by "a beautiful girl, dressed in green, with blue eyes and golden ringlets" but unbeknownst to Peter it was the legendary Faerie Queen.
Because all myths have a root in reality, when addressing historical problems with mythological aspects, my first step is always to manifest the location aspects associated with a myth in our real world. In this case, I began by plotting the places featured in the myth on old maps. After plotting Peter's farmhouse (Windy Ha') then the Sysa mound, an old track linking the two places rose from the map, which Peter travelled several times throughout the story. This first step successfully established that the myth, like most, held hitherto unobserved data about the actual locations recorded within it.
The Faerie Queen smiled at Peter kindly and “in a voice as soft and clear as a silver bell“ she offered to "help him make his fortune". She asked Peter to choose between a set of "magical pipes inlaid with silver" or a "gold-embossed bible". Peter's decision plays on a common mythological archetype - he would become a either a spiritually rich but materially poor man of the church, or a rich and famous musician seduced by the fruits of the material world.
Peter, like most young lads chose the pipes, and on his first attempt he "played them perfectly despite never having held the instrument before." Before the maiden departed Sysa she told Peter "There is one condition, seven years from this day at the exact same hour of the evening, you must meet me here, by the well of Sysa." Peter swore that he would return in moonlight on the same evening, 7 years hence.
Peter returned over the hill of Olrig to his home at Windy Ha' and upon learning how he had obtained the pipes his parents strongly advised him to throw them away and forget about the whole ordeal, believing the pipes had been cursed by the Queen of the Fairies. However, Peter knew better and cashed in on his new-found ability to play the pipes, gradually gathering a small fortune performing at parties across Scotland, himself partying heartily along the way.
Seven years had almost passed and as the sun began to set Peter and his dog headed south from Windy Ha', over the hill of Olrig to Sysa, but half way there he commanded his dog to return home. After doing so, the dog howled loudly watching Peter disappearing over the crest of the hill of Olrig for the last time.
"the sun near its setting poured a flood of yellow radiance over the brown moor and in the succeeding moonlight, Sysa seemed to glow with more than earthly lustre"
The folk of Windy Ha’ firmly believed Peter reached Sysa and had been carried away to the Fairyland by the Queen of the Faeries herself who dwelled inside the Sysa hillock. Locals claim Peter's pipes can still be heard on moonlit nights but skeptics attribute the eerie sounds to the wind whistling though the radio masts on top of the hill of Olrig.
INTERPRETING THE piper's journey
Before revealing the new astronomical observations I found encoded within this myth, we must first understand the mythical archetypes which underpin this folktale. It essentially tells of the vibrance and struggles of youth and the negligence of parental guidance. It highlights the ego of man choosing wealth and fame over a contemplative spiritual life and it cradles the reoccurring theme of a contract/bond between a human being and an otherworldly entity for a period of 7 years. These primary underlying motifs or archetypes are reflected in several similar folktales from different parts of Scotland, three good examples are:
A famous Scottish Borders story tells of Tam Lin being "stolen by the fairies and released after seven years of bondage". In Andrew Lang's 1860’s book The Gold of Fairnilee, on Midsummer day, Randal Ker of Fairnilee visited a fairy well and the Fairy Queen “spirited him away to Fairy Land for seven years. Mollie Hunters 1972 novel The Haunted Mountain tells of a proud young farmer named MacAllister who is imprisoned in the underworld of the fairies for seven years. Naomi Mitchison’s 1950 book The Big House tells of another piper being held prisoner in a Fairy Hill for "twice seventy years".
These stories are all symbolic of the journey though life, but several other mythological archetypes and motifs are shared by these four particular myths. The central male characters all have insights that are opposed to their parents. They all display courage and boldly face a series of dangers which they alone understand, and must alone undergo. In each case a man denies a spiritual path over a material one; the Piper of Windy Ha' chose fame and fortune over the insightful words of the Bible. MacAllister in the Haunted Mountain planted seeds to expand his wealth rather than adhering to ancient superstitions and traditions about a 'taboo field'.
Each of these human emotional themes are structured around 7 year cycles of the sun and a contract/bind between a human being and a spiritual entity from the Land of the Shide - the Kingdom of the Faeries. Why did Peter and all the other pipers make 7 year obligations with the Faerie Queen? Why not 3, 11 or 291 years?
THE NUMBER SEVEN in faerie lore
Don’t worry, I’m not about to spin off into a load of subjective numerical nonsense about the importance of the number seven over all other numbers, there is no difference. However, to understand why Scottish myths so often describe a cycle of 7 years we must hold a basic understanding of why the number 7 appears so frequently associated to passing time, in nearly all ancient religions, myths, legends and fairytale systems around the world.
According to the Dictionary of Symbols by J. C. Cirlot, there were "seven faerie types" in faerie lore "one for each direction of space and time". In most ancient cultures the number seven was attributed to the gods because 7 heavenly bodies were seen in the sky with the naked eye; Sun, Moon, Venus, Mercury, Saturn, Mars, Jupiter. There are 7 days in a week after the 7 planets, thus, the Ancient Greek's Seven Sirens of the Spheres corresponds with the seven virgins in Cinderella. Snow White famously tried to sleep in the bed of each of the 7 dwarves, but they were all too short or too long, until she tried the 7th bed. According to Austrian-born psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim ‘there may be seven dwarves because Snow White herself seems to be distantly derived from the sun, suggested by her whiteness and consequently her radiance. And according to the ancients, seven planets circle the sun, hence the seven dwarfs.”
Expanding on the metaphysical interpretation of the number 7, in 1884 Friedrich Loeffler wrote “these fairies correspond to the seven Lipiki of Hindi esoteric thought, that is, the spirits relative to each plane of human consciousness: sensation, emotion, reflective intelligence, spirituality, will and intimations of the divine." The esoteric conclusion is that the human being is composed of seven spheres after the pattern of the heavens and this concept still being developed today under the general banner of The Seven Spheres of Consciousness.
There are many possible ways for us to interpret the number 7 in relation to Scottish faerie lore, but to get as close as possible to correctly interpreting the original meaning of any such number which appears repeatedly within a myth, we must always attempt to bind our conclusions as close to nature, farming, fishing and hunting as we possibly can. In Scotland, when a natural phenomena affected farming, fishing or hunting, traces of it can be found at the pulsing heart of fairytales, folklore, myths and legends. For example, the 28 day cycle of the moon is one of the most dominating factors in farming and sustained outdoor survival, and it is a multiple of 7.
the Pleiades and the Faerie Star
When it comes to deciphering archetypes with myths many researchers begin in the heavens and work downwards! I on the other hand work from the ground up, starting in the wheat fields with the farmers, who in their day-to-day interactions with nature created the agricultural processes and calendars upon which myths are built around. The constellation Orion, the hunter, is the dominant feature in the Northern Hemisphere’s winter night sky. If you follow the stars of Orion’s belt upwards you will find the Pleiades and if you follow them downwards you identify Sirius.
These three prominent features in the night sky are found in the astronomical lore of religions across the world. They were reflected in the layouts and alignments of ancient stone megastructures, most famously the Pyramids of Egypt, Mexico and China. Through time, the Pleiades constellation has attracted more attention and resulting mythology than any other constellation. It is commonly known as “the seven sisters” and they appear in myths on every continent, all of which adhere to the motif of 7 humans being transformed into stars and/or trapped in the otherworld.
In the faerie realm's of both Scotland and Ireland the Pleiades were associated with the magically imbued seven pointed Faerie Star (or Elven Star) - the septagram. According to faerie lore the seven pointed star was a gateway symbol, signifying the bridge between this world and the faerie realm, but beneath the shape is an underlying geometric message: Three points on each side, unified in a seventh point, representing the 'incident' in space and time where the two worlds meet. In mythical religions the seven pointed star corresponded to the energetic/subtle body that moves between this world and other dimensions - concepts which today's scientists define with psychological terms such as subconsciousness, shadow and self.
THE hidden ASTRONOMY OF WINDY HA'
After many years contemplating the psychological, metaphorical and archetypal elements with the legend of the Piper of Windy Ha', I turned my attention to looking for underlying astronomical or astrological information within the myth. I can now confidently assert that the characters, locations and events featured in The Piper of Windy Ha' are guardians of a deeply buried message - a sacred astronomical secret. Let's re-reading the myth, transposing Peter with the Sun.
1. Peter leaves Windy Ha' on a 'mid-summer' morning. The sun rises from Windy Ha' on the summer solstice.
2. Peter 'arrives at Sysa at noon' and 'rests'. The Sun reaches its meridian at noon and having stopped climbing in the sky, it rests.
3. Peter fell asleep 'all afternoon'. The Sun sets, all afternoon.
4. Peter awoke 'just before sunset' when the queen of the faeries appeared. Just before sunset, the moon appeared, challenging the Sun's dominance in the sky.
5. For seven years Peter played the pipes and enjoyed fame and riches. For seven years the Sun shone generating good harvests.
Peter, choosing pipes rather than the Bible, would ultimately end with the sun vanishing forever. Many myths find at their essence the cataclysmic idea of the sun's light vanishing, being either captured or kidnapped by the lords of darkness. The Sun vanishing must have been among the worst possible scenarios that ancient peoples could have imagined. In ancient Scotland this story would have been 'heard' as a disaster tale threatening agricultural armageddon.
Having established that Peter was indeed allegorical for the sun, I then noticed that Peter's south west journey from Windy Ha' to Sysa,corresponded with the course of the summer solstice sun through the sky. Plotting Sysa onto a 19th century map and drawing in the summer solstice rising azimuth (angle), in Caithness this is about 38 degrees east of north., revealed that an observer standing atop Sysa, on the morning of the summer solstice sunrise, would watch the sun rise directly behind the top hill of Olrig - in perfect alignment with Windy Ha', Peter's farmhouse.
This important summer solstice alignment cuts through the agricultural heart of Caithness and was most probably first observed in the Neolithic period between 6000 and 4500 years BP. At this time, the summer and winter solstices were the most important astronomical occurrences in the annual calendar, besides the two equinoxes. This is evident in the alignments of their vast stone burial chambers and standing stone arrangements which often align with places on the horizon where the sun was seen rising and setting on the solstices, most famously the summer solstice alignment at Stonehenge in England.
Although it is invisible, the hill of Olrig solstice alignment offers a rare insight into the archeoastronomy and resulting cosmology of a culture of people who depended on and worshiped the sun to enhance successful harvests. This sacred geographic alignment is a commonly observed building format across Neolithic Britain and essentially unites the sun with the land, on the most important day in the agricultural year. In contemporary cultures the sun's first solstice rays were perceived as Fertilising the female fields, thus generating fruitful harvests.
It is highly probable that in the Neolithic period Sysa was a viewing platform from which observations of the sun and the moon were conducted. If so, it would have been a highly ritualised central feature used for agrarian rituals and ceremonies which focused on uniting the fertilising energies of the sun and the moon with the land. This lost summer solstice alignment is an important cultural artefact uniting the Sysa Hillock with the summit of the hill of Olrig and Windy Ha'. Having been mythoologicalised, the alignment has been saved from the eroding powers of time and has survived in the oral myths, legends and folktales of Caithness folk.
This summer solstice alignment is a perfect example of a myth holding much older data about the astronomy, religious beliefs and greater cosmology of the ancient people who once inhabited these magical northern landscapes, that we today call Scotland. If you are a first-time reader it's best you know that I normally write the Conclusions section around the main observations and discoveries discussed in the article. In this case however, we have skipped the light fandango and I can think of no better words to summarise this article with than those of physicist Niels Bohr in The Art of Genius, 1998. I believe this sentence holds the secret psychological key we need to access the mythological Land of the Faeries.
“If you hold opposites together in your mind, you will suspend your normal thinking process and allow an intelligence beyond rational thought to create a new form.”
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