November Snow Moon: Toadstools, Frogs and Fairy Queens

Around the November full moon, it was customary in Ireland to dress in green in honour of the fairy folk and their most famous queen, Oonagh. Known as the most beautiful goddess of them all, Oonagh was said to fly over the land wearing a gossamer, silver robe bejewelled with dew, her long golden hair sweeping the ground, beguiling all those with whom she came into contact. Though mortal men could not help but fall in love with her, the High King Finvarrva, her husband, seemed oblivious to her glamour and preferred instead to seduce mortal women. Today, the once High Queen of the Daoine Sidhe, or people of the mound, has been relegated to such vague titles as ‘love goddess,’ or ‘protectress of young animals’ and ‘mistress of illusion and glamour,’ but we can still piece together the mere fragments of her story that survive to develop a picture of this elusive queen and the rites that once surrounded her.

According to the Mythological Cycle, the Tuatha De Danann were a pre-historic people who arrived in Ireland ‘on the first of May,’ and engaged in battle with the Fir Bolg, a pre-existing warrior tribe, at Mag Tuireadh. Though the Tuatha were victorious they also had to negotiate with a pre-existing tribe known as the Formorians, who were hostile to them but who they finally defeated years later with the aid of magical weapons at the second battle of Mag Tuireadh. However, they were in turn also destined to be replaced by another incoming tribe, the Milesians, who also arrived on the 1st May, and later converted to Christianity. The characters of the Tuatha became mythologised as gods and retired to the sidhe, the pre-historic burial mounds that peppered the Irish landscape, where they remain to this day.[1] It is widely disputed to what extent this mythological history constitutes actual migrations, or the battles real historical events, but it should always be born in mind that myths emerge out of a relationship between people and places and therefore contain perennial truths and ecological wisdoms with multiple meanings and nuances.

Whether historic figures or not, the Tuatha were said to have magical powers, to be masters of the sidhe, or siddhi, which means in this context, power over the elemental forces and therefore the arts of prophecy, healing and magic. These powers were quite literally regarded as otherworldly – the Otherworld being the realm of archetypal and magical beings (‘Super-nature’) that both permeates and is separate from the world inhabited by humans. Super-nature has an existence that is independent from us, and if we are fortunate, comes forward to us in our imagination and dreams. In fairy lore, this place is sometimes known as the Land of Elphame, where the fairies of Daoine-sidhe, are said to reside. Oonagh as Fairy Queen could access the wisdom of the Elphame, and her colour was green, reflecting the emerald grass, majestic trees and plants abounding in the land of Ireland.

The people of the Daoine-sidhe would have guarded their powers tightly (this could have been the origins of the term green with envy?) and therefore it was not permitted for fairy queens to marry mortals, though they themselves became infatuated with her. It is interesting in the stories that Finvarra is said to indulge quite freely in carnal relationships with mortal women, and this could  be an indication that his offspring would not have been given the same fay status as that of the matrilineal fairy queen. Be that as it may, during later times and under the superstitions and distortions imposed by Christianity, people feared that their own children had been supplanted by ‘malevolent’ changeling fairies who brought about family ills, and designed tests to root out infiltrators that inevitably, and sadly, ended in deforming their own children.

The Fairy Queen though usually beguiling also had a dark side, for it was said that she was bound to pay a tithe to Hel every seven years and it was her mortal lovers who were to pay this price. Men were therefore both fascinated and afraid of her, as reflected in the poem ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ by Keats. The knight in the poem ‘meets a lady in the meads, full beautiful – a faery’s child. Her hair was long, her foot was light, and her eyes were wild.’ He rides off with the fairy maid and then sees,’ pale kings and princes too, pale warriors, death pale were they all. They cried, ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci Hath thee in thrall.’

Like Oonagh, the faery being in the poem is said to have long hair and again this is a symbol of both the chastity and unavailability of the fay woman, who even when vulnerable and naked, remains veiled by her hair. This ‘veiling’ is a very ancient symbol of the goddess, or the mysteries, that remain veiled to the uninitiated until the time is right. Indeed, Oonagh’s gossamer dress is more veil than robe-like, as though it appears like sparkling diamonds, it is actually made from dew-drops.

The fairy queen of Elphame has an enduring presence in the popular imagination of the Middle Ages and has survived in numerous pieces of literature and folktale. Edmund Spenser called her Gloriana in his poem the Faerie Queen, and Shakespeare called her Titania in his comedy ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ This name was itself derived from Diana, the Roman goddess of the hunt, who became associated with the fairy realm in the folklore of the Middle Ages on account of her association with woods, forests and fountains.[2]

The social structures of the Tuatha de Danaan were centred on seas of assembly called raths, circular mounds built as ancient burial mounds and therefore considered sacred. They were sometimes known as fairy rings, as were pre-existing stone circles. Fairy rings are also the name given to a type of mushroom – the Mousseron – which appears in early spring-time and grows in circular formations that expand out over large periods of time. This mushroom variety is highly edible, but sometimes growing alongside is another variety called Amanita muscaria, more often called a toadstool on account of its red-topped fungus and warty proturberances. It is classed as highly poisonous, though less so when boiled, and is ingested on account of its hallucinogenic and intoxicating properties.[3] It has long since been used in a ritual context, possible recorded in the Rigveda of India, were it was called ‘soma.’ The uses of ayahuasca and the psilocybin mushrooms as hallucinogens is well known and more than likely used by ancient people in ritual context to bring about spiritual experiences, and aid communication with the archetypal beings of the Otherworld.

Toads are known to have highly toxic chemicals in the nodes under their skin, which they can use as deadly defences in some cases. Most are poisonous, but it has been discovered that the cane toad, amongst others, secretes chemicals with highly hallucinogenic effects.[4] It is therefore interesting to speculate if there is a link between these properties and the fairy tale theme of princesses kissing frogs, which then turn into handsome princes. In a version of the frog prince tale told in the Western Isles of Scotland, it is tempting to see just this. The story begins with a queen who has become ill and can only be healed by water from the well of truth. Her three daughters set out to find the well, but when they approach it, a loathsome frog appears who will only grant them access if one agrees to marry him. The youngest pledges to do so, and the frog permits them access to the water, which is then used to heal the mother queen. But in due course, the frog seeks out the daughter and reminds her of her pledge to marry him. He croaks and croaks, but she resolutely ignores him until he tells her to put an end to his torture and chop off his head! This she duly does, whereupon he turns into a handsome prince and marries the princess.

The fairy story of the frog prince can be interpreted on many other levels worthy of an entire book, but all of which encode a forgotten relationship between humans and the Otherworld inhabited by the people of the sidhe (Super-nature). By having the humility to accept nature in all its forms, beautiful and ugly, and to be open to the Otherworld and its gifts of ‘fairy gold,’ we have the power to transform  our mundane human experience into one of deep connection with the land, and to the life-sustaining nourishment of the mythic imagination from which we are currently so disconnected.

In addition to circular mounds, water was also frequently seen as a boundary between the mortal and the Otherworld, or Land of Elphame, and it was at these water sources that frogs and toads were frequently found, as in the folktale above. Visibly seen to be birthed in pools of water, frogs were considered as representatives of water spirits, particularly healing ones, often associated with the blessings of rain and the purifying and life-giving forces of water. Figurines of frogs with female heads have been found dating back to at least the sixth millennium BCE in Hacilar in Turkey, and also in birthing/life giving poses in the archaeological record of Old Europe.[5] The fact that frogs laid frog spawn (eggs), which is then turn hatch into tadpoles, aquatic creatures with tails, then finally develop into frogs (amphibians that can survive both on land and in water) marks them out as unique manifestations of the goddess as both creatrix and regeneratrix.


[1] ‘The new Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology’ 1959, Hamlyn

[2] See ‘Fairy Queen – Wikepedia’ available at www.en.m.wikepedia.org, accessed 29.11.2020

[3] See ‘Fly Algaric (Amanita muscaria) – Woodland Trust’ available at www.woodlandtrust.org.uk, accessed 29.11.2020

[4] See ‘Psychedilic Toad Venon is the New Trendy Hallucinogenic Addition,’ available at www.addictioncenter.com, accessed 29.11.2020.

[5] ‘The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe,’ by Marija Gimbutas, 1982, Thames and Hudson

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