May 19, 2011

Magical Clothing in Folklore

Throughout history, supernatural beings, whether fairies, spirits, or gods, have been attributed with multiple powers, including flight, invisibility, and even shapeshifting. 

Selkie Woman by Arthur Rackham

However, there is an element found in folklore that deviates from this theme of natural power, and creates dependency in order to obtain them – magical clothing.  A perfect example of this characteristic is reflected in a narrative told by the 19th century poet Lady Wilde, form the Sligo region of Ireland:
A young peasant was crossing an alder forest one night when he became tired of walking. He decided to ask for shelter in a humble hut. When he knocked the door he was received by a small man of old appearance who kindly invited him in; when he went in he discovered another man as little and the other one, but younger, sitting by a table. Later, after an abundant dinner, the human fell asleep, but was later awakened in the middle on the night by the sounds of movement and whispers. He saw that the two men were putting on some weird white tunics and the older one said:
- “Here I go!”
- “I’ll follow you!”- replied the younger one, and immediately the two little men disappeared flying though the window. Intrigued by what had just happened, the peasant put on a third tunic that was on the table, and said:
- “And I’ll follow you both!”- and suddenly, he saw himself sitting on a barrel, from which the two little men had already drunk several jars of whisky. Imitating them, the peasant quickly felt on a drunken state. The next morning he was discovered by the workers of the brewery, and was arrested, and sentenced to hanging. The day of the hanging, right when execution was about to take place, a white-bearded man who was wearing a weird white tunic emerged from the crowd. He asked the judge if the peasant could wear a tunic. The judge accepted, but as soon as he put it on, the fairy-man exclaimed: “Here I go”. To which the peasant responded: “And I’ll follow you!” And then both of them disappeared from the crowd.[1]
Fairy creatures have long been identified with supernatural powers, but as one can see, such powers often depend on some kind of garment that grants them to them. The white tunic in the story just told is a parallel the broomsticks in witch-lore, which are also used for flying. The use of magical clothing for traveling purposes is a common theme in many cultures. In Taiwanese folklore, the ndejeni is a creature that helps fishermen by submerging in the ocean with the help of vests, to which they attach fish scales and shark skin; this helps them survive underwater.[2] Similarly, in the folklore of southern, and south-eastern Ireland ( Kerry, Cork and Wexford county) merrows (fairy-mermaids) wear a small red cap made from feathers, called a cohullen druith, which they use to propel through the water. In order to come ashore, merrows abandons their caps, so any mortal who finds these has power over them.[3] Further up north, in Faroese, Icelandic, Irish, and Scottish folklore, around the Orkney and Shetland Islands, the myth changes. The selkie, also known as silkies, selchies, or roane, are seal people that are able to shapeshift into humans by shedding their seal skin. Just like their southern counterparts, the merrow, the selkie is vulnerable to anyone that takes possession of their garment.[4]  This motif of transformation through skin coats are found all throughout the world[5], such as the Russian swan maiden,[6] the Croatian tale of the She-Wolf, [7] the Italian fairy tale of “The Dove Girl”, [8] the Native American (Lakota and Sioux) myth of the white buffalo women,[9] the Japanese legend of Hagoromo, which shows a swan maiden motif,[10] and many more. All of these characters represent an archetypal figure in folklore, a supernatural being dependent on their skin clothing to perform their natural abilities, but at the same time are at risk if someone takes possession of them.

Perhaps out of all the abilities attributed to supernatural beings, the power of invisibility is the one humans fear most; it’s what makes these magical beings unseen, thus mythical. Throughout mythology, one of the most popular pieces of clothing that grants such power is the cap of invisibility. Originating in Greek Mythology, this item, also known as the Cap of Hades, Helm of Hades, or Helm of Darkness, is a helmet that grants the wearer invisibility, even from supernatural beings. It has been said to have been used by Hermes, the messenger god, Athena, the goddess of wisdom, and the Greek hero Perseus.[11]  Interestingly enough, the icon of the magic cap worked its way down to common folklore. The famous German folklorists and famous fairy-tale collectors known as The Brothers Grimm once said that that “we don’t usually see dwarfs – not because they live underground, but because, when abroad, they generally sport protective, invisible making ‘fog hats’”.[12] Similarly, near the Italian Alps, exists the myth of the Aguane, a race of female fairy nymphs who wear a red cap that grants them invisibility.[13] In fact, the invisibility cap motif still exists all throughout European folklore, and have become an staple of fairy lore, especially in the color red. From the Italian folleti,[14] to the malicious redcap goblins inhabiting ruined castles along the border between England and Scotland,[15] and the Irish merrows that were mentioned earlier, the theme persists. The red cap motif still lives today solidified in garden gnome statues across gardens in the western world. Another solid, yet rare staple found in folklore similar to the invisibility cap is the cloak variant. Perhaps mostly known for its appearance in modern fiction, the invisibility cloak appears in folktales of the UK, China, Japan, Philippines, Native Americans,[16] and was even featured in the Germanic epic poem of Nnibelungenlied, written in about A . D. 1200.[17]

There is no way one can trace the origins of clothing as a magic tool. Clothing has existed for as long as humans have, and is older than language itself. Clothing is a representation of the individual; it is a huge element of society. People just took that ideology and applied it to their tales. The narratives of supernatural beings using magical clothing just reflects our own human society, where clothing is used as a reflection of our inner psyche[18]. It’s an attempt to make these magical beings more human-like.

[1] Robersto Rosaspini Raynolds, El Magico Mundo De Los Duendes (Buenos Aires:Ediciones Continente, 2001), p 28.
[2] ^Robersto Rosaspini Raynolds, El Magico Mundo De Los Duendes, p 29.
[3] William Butler Yeats, Fairy and folk tales of Ireland (New York: Touchstone, 1998) p 60.
[4] Orkneyjar.com,“The Selkie-folk”, last accessed Tuesday, May 17, 2011. http://www.orkneyjar.com/folklore/selkiefolk/index.html
[5] Juliette Wood (1992). The Fairy Bride Legend in Wales
Folklore, 103 (1), 56-72
[6]  University of Pittsburg, “Swan Maidens”, last accessed Tuesday, May 17, 2011. http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/swan.html
[7] Sacred-texts.com, “The She Wolf”, last accessed Tuesday, May 17, 2011.
[8] Italo Calvino, Italian Fairy Tales (Torino: Giulio Einaudi editore, 1956) p 591.
[9] Livingmyths.com, “Native American Myths”, last accessed Tuesday, May 17, 2011, http://www.livingmyths.com/Native.htm
[10] University of Virginian Library, “Hagoromo”, last accessed Tuesday, May 17, 2011. http://etext.virginia.edu/japanese/noh/PouHago.html
[11] William Hansen, Classical mythology: a guide to the mythical world of the Greeks and Romans (New York: Oxford, 2004), p 325.
[12] Susannah Marriot, The Ultimate Fairy Handbook, (London: Octopus Publishing Group, 2008), p 274.
[13] Monstrous, “Italian Fairies”, Last accessed Wednesday, May 18, 2011. http://faerie.monstrous.com/italian_faeries.htm
[14] Raffaella Benvenuto, “Italian Fairies”, Last accessed Wednesday, May 18, 2011.
[15] Katherine M. Briggs, The Fairies in English Tradition and Literature, (London: University of Chicago Press, 1967) p 57.
[16] Jane Garry, Archetypes and motifs in folklore and literature, (Edmonds: M.E. Sharpe, 2005) p 162.
[17] University of Pittsburg, “The Nibelungenlied”, Last accessed Wednesday,  May 18, 2011. http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/nibelungenlied.html
[18] Carole Scott (1996). Magical Dress: Clothing and Transformation in Folk Tales Children's Literature Association Quarterly, 21 (4), 151-157Children's Literature Association Quarterly, 21 (4), 151-157

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