Druids, deer and ‘words of power’: coming to terms with evil in medieval Ireland
By Jacqueline Borsje
Approaches to religion and mythology in Celtic studies, edited by K. Ritari & A. Bergholm (Cambridge Scholars, 2007)
Introduction: In religion, evil is believed to be everywhere and to appear in any form. I define evil as that which is believed to cause or to represent harm. A thought-provoking metaphor for evil is suggested in a Dutch novel from the 1980s: we should not compare the battle with evil to a heroic fight against a dragon, but with the daily cleaning of our dwelling places. Dust and dirt—visible and invisible—are everywhere and there is no end to the task of cleaning up.
Despite the omnipresence and multiformity of evil, some religions have tried to name and identify evil as a category and as a part of a system. Christianity has followed Judaism in associating evil with supernatural beings and human acts. The Devil and demons are said to be the supernatural representatives of evil; sin is another word for evil human deeds and thoughts.
Our focus is on medieval Irish literature—one of the earliest written vernaculars in Europe. Within this rich tradition, the face of evil changes according to genre. Heroic texts or sagas are somewhat elusive when one tries to pinpoint what exactly is considered to be evil. In hagiography, however, a clear distinction between good and evil can often be found. I will discuss three related examples from different genres in order to show how the medieval Irish portrayed evil and tried to come to terms with it. We will start with a hagiographic tale. The second text is a lorica, which is a form of verbal protection against evil. Our third example is a so-called mythological tale.