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Celtic Symbolism in Folk Songs: "Tam Lin" - Part One

I had the chance to get an approach to the magnificent "Inner Keltia" magazine through Wendy Newton from Green Linnet Records who kindly send me some volumes as a present by the 80's. Thus I got acquainted of the outstanding work of J.A.Johnston (also known by his druidic name Kaledon Naddair ) who was it's editor and reviewer. If you wish to purchase more of Kaledon books and works please feel free to visit the official website of Keltia Publications. In this opportunity I would like to share with you a cute essay by the assistant editor Deirdre Green. All rights reserved by the author.

It is widely recognised that Mythology enshrines Spiritual truths in symbolic form, but less credit is given to the fact that the same is true of folk tale and folklore generally and hence of folk music. Needless to say if it does not follow that all who sing those songs, or who have sung them in past centuries, are aware of their dooper meanings. But the songs can be seen as survivals (however much altered or diminished) of traditional beliefs.

When we read between the lines, they can be found to contain veiled references to esoteric teachings, no doubt only dimly remembered or half understood by many who have played a part in their transmission down the ages. Yet the very fact that the teachings are veiled, hidden under obscure layers of symbolism, means ühat they have survived where other more explicit wisdom would have fallen on prey to persecution. The inner kernel of truth is thus presierved for those in any age who can crack the shell.

I shall begin with some comments on the Scottish ballad "Tam Lin", a moet interesting song which illustrates various magical and Otherworld beliefs of the ancient Kelts. The most important aspect of these beliefs shown in the song, is the transformatory shape-shifting which makes up the main body of the ballad, and which I will discuss in detail later.

First, though, it may be as well to summarize Tam Lin's story for those who are not familiar with it, and to point out other magical elements found in the song. There are many variants of the song, and I shall take my references from a number of different versions so as to give the fullest possible synopsis.

"Tam Lin" tells the story of the winning of an Otherworld lover, a widespread theme in Keltic Mythology. The heroine, who in most versions is called Janet, is with child by her lover Tam Lin who has spent se ven years in the realm of Faery. She first meets him at Carterhaugh, a Fairy domain which can still be located today at Bowhill, near Selkirk; while Miles Cross, where Janet later has to pull Tam Lin from his horse, is nearby.

Folk tradition has preserved the belief that certain "Fairy Rings" upon the plain there were caused by the immersion of Tam Lin into milk or water, which will be discussed later.
When Janet first arrives at Garterhaugh she wanders about picking roses and/or red and green flowers (according to the version). This might seem insignificant enough, until we remember that mortals on their visits to the Otherworld are frequently warned not to pick or eat certain kinds of flowers or fruit (Thomas the Rhymer, another Otherworld traveller also from the Borders, is told by the Fairy Queen not to eat the apples of the Earthly Paradise); and indeed, Tam Lin immediately warns Janet not to continue plucking the flowers.

The rose is a highly symbolic flower with many inner meanings, and was sometimes also regarded as being under the protection of fairies; while red and green are both eolours symbolically associated with fairy peoples.

At about this point in the song, in some versions, we also discover Janet circumambulating (a widespread Keltic ritual practice) and trying to discover her lover's "true name", doubtless as a means of winning him back from the Otherworld :

" She turned her richt an' roon about
Tae ask her true love's name
But nothing heard, an' nothing saw
An' a' the woods grew dim,"

She does not discover it at this point, and Tam Lin, it seems, has disappeared. But later, he tells her his name, and she makes magical use of it at Miles Cross when, according to one version of the song, she has to cry out his name whilst holding him tight through his magical transformations :

" They next shaped him in her arms'
Like the laidliest Worm of Ind
But she held him fast, let him not go
And cried aye 'Young Tamlin"

After thalr meeting and the inevitable seduction, Janet asks Tam Lin if he was ever "in holy chapel, or sained in christendie" - in other words, she wants to know if he is really a mortal, or a fairy. Tam Lin replies that he was born of earthly parents, but that for the past seven years he has been dwelling in a Fairy Hill since his capture by the Queen of Fairies.

He then tells her his "true name", the name by which he is known in the Otherworld, and it is the knowledge of this name, amongst other things, that gives Janet the power to later win him back from Faery:
" 'First they did call me Jack,
' he said, 'And then they called me John,
But since I lived in the Fairy Court
Tamlin has been my name' "

Tam Lin then tells Janet that every seven years the Fairies pay a"tithe to Hell' - a sacrifice - and that he is afraid that he may be chosen for this. He says that if Janet would win him back from the Otherworld, she must be at Miles Cross when the Fairy Court rides past at midnight on Hallowe'en (Samhain). Samhain is, of eourse, the tune in the Keltic calendar when the Fairies (the Sidhe) are believed to be particularly active, a time "out of time" when the veil between this world and the Otherworld is thln. In particular, it is a propitious time for the recovery of mortals from Faery, and especially for the winning of Otherworld lovers. (Oenghus wins his Fairy Bride Caer at Samhain.)
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