The Demna Aeoir
Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from Irish Gods and Monsters
Demons of the air screamed from every quarter and edge
It is during the darkest winter nights that we sit inside our houses and listen to the wind hammering at our windows and doors, as if it had a mind and will of its own – as if it wished to do us harm!
The old people of Ireland believed that was the literal truth, that there were demons of the air, or demna aeóir thronging about the sky at night, howling over battlefields and attending the funerals of the wicked, ready to drag them down to hell.
There was much speculation among the monks who first transcribed the oral tradition of Irish mythology to paper about the true nature of the Tuatha Dé Dannan. As they read and after wrote of the sorcerous powers manifested by these precursors to the Gaels, the monks pondered whether the long-gone race had made some sort of pact with demonic entities. For how else could they achieve such magical feats as the legends boasted?
Others thought these powers were native to the Tuatha, residing in their bloodlines like red hair, and they discussed how the “native” spirits might have interacted with the demons of Christianity. Yet others thought the Tuatha were instead demons of the earth, residing in the fairy mounds.
In the poem on the deaths of the Túatha Dé, it is recounted that Bé Chuile and Dianann were killed by the magic or druidecht of the “dark demons of the air”. Monks wrote in Togail Troí that demna aeóir accompanied the Badb before a battle,
The Badb roared and cried over it
Demons of the air called overhead
In the Children of Lir, Aoife, daughter of the king is punished for turning the children into swans, and her father asks her what form she would find the worst to inhabit. She answers that a demna aeóir would be the worst, so he struck her with a wand, transforming her. Aoife flew away, cursed to remain a demna aeóir.
The Chase of Síd na mBan Fionn and the Death of Fionn relates that during Fionn mac Cumhaill’s final battle, “the pale ones and the goat-men and the red-mouthed badbs and the demoniac spectral women of the glen and the demons of the air and the fluttering spectres of the firmament shrieked above the head of the ruler of the Fían, exalting in the strife and battle”.
In Cath Cumair, it is stated that “the crows and ravens were merry and full from the traces of point and blade of that onslaught. Also sprites and goblins, madmen of the glens, and demons of the air screamed from every quarter and edge of that redoubtable battle”.
The Book of Leinster retelling of Táin bó Cúalnge tells that these fiends would screech in response to the yells and summons of mortal heroes. It is said of Cú Chulainn that:
“Anger and rage filled him when he saw the host, because of the multitude of his foes and the great number of his enemies. He seized his two spears and his shield and his sword. He shook his shield and brandished his spears and waved his sword, and he uttered a hero’s shout from his throat. And the goblins and sprites and spectres of the glen and demons of the air gave answer for terror of the shout that he had uttered, and Nemain, the war goddess, brought confusion on the host.”
When Cú Chulainn took up sword, spear, and shield, it was written:
“he put on his head his crested war-helmet of battle and strife and conflict, from which was uttered the shout of a hundred warriors with a long-drawn-out cry from every corner and angle of it. For there used to cry from it alike goblins and sprites, spirits of the glen and demons of the air, before him and above him and around him, wherever he went, prophesying the shedding of the blood of warriors and champions.”
When Cú Chulainn set out to meet his foster-brother Ferdiad in single combat, the old stories say
“Then Cú Chulainn mac Sualtaim mounted his chariot, the blow-dealing, feat-performing, battle-winning, red-sworded hero, and around him shrieked goblins and sprites and fiends of the glen and demons of the air, for the Túatha Dé Danand used to raise a cry about him so that the fear and terror and horror and fright that he inspired might be all the greater in every battle and field of conflict and in every encounter to which he went.”
So fierce was his duel with Ferdiad that,
“sprites and goblins and spirits of the glen and demons of the air screamed from the rims of their shields and from the hilts of their swords and from the butt-ends of their spears”.
The writing Cath Maige Mucrama describes demons, eager to snatch the souls of the fallen warriors down to hell, that throng in the air so thickly before a battle that they darken the sky.
They even made their mark in Irish translations of earlier Latin legends, where no sign of the demna aeóir can be found in the originals, such as Cath Catharda.
“at the cawing voices of the birds and the fowls and the other flying things; at the rough-bitter, wail-screaming of the madmen, and the taloned griffins, and the witches, and the spectres, and the red-mouthed lamias, and the phantoms with dishevelled hair, and the crowds of demonic multitudes and the other devil-fishes of the air above them, neither slumber nor nap nor sleep was allowed to a single soul in each of the two great camps so long as the witches were at that game around them.”
They might have been seen as fish-like in their movements, darting and diving in schools.
In the book Cath Fionntrágha, they are called arrachta aieir or spectres of the air.
“Then the beings of the upper regions responded to the battle, telling the evil and the woe that was destined to be done on that day, and the sea chattered telling the losses, and the waves raised a heavy woeful great moan in wailing them, and the beasts howled telling of them in their bestial way, and the rough hills creaked with the danger of that attack, and the woods trembled in wailing the heroes, and the grey stones cried from the deeds of the heroes, and the winds sighed telling the high deeds, and the earth trembled in prophesying the heavy slaughter, and the sun was covered with a blue mantle by the cries of the grey hosts, and the clouds were shining black at the time of that hour, and the hounds and whelps, and crows, and the demoniac women of the glen, and the spectres of the air, and the wolves of the forest howled together from every quarter and every corner round about them, and a demoniacal devilish section of the tempters to evil and wrong kept urging them on against each other.”
Other peoples had similar beliefs, such as the Romans and Babylonians, calling these fiends lamias and sirens, although these were different from the battle beasts portending war that might be found in certain cultures, for they had little interest in feeding on the flesh of the fallen! They hungered for a different feast.
In the Book of Lecan the writer observes that some people claim that the Tuatha Dé Danann had been expelled from heaven with Lucifer,
“Others say that the Túatha Dé Danann were demons of a different order, and that it is they who came from heaven along with the expulsion by which Lucifer and his demons came from heaven; having taken an airy body upon themselves to destroy and to tempt the seed of Adam.
That is the fortress against which those who made that attempt advanced, in the train of the devil and his followers. So those people go in currents of wind. They go under seas, they go in wolf-shapes, and they go to fools and they go to the powerful. Thence comes it that this is the nature of all of them, to be followers of the devil.”
Struggling to make these stories of dread entities descended from the old pagan times of Ireland fit with Christian spiritual understanding, the monks and scholars of medieval times suggested that the fallen angels had been split into three parts – one to the earth or abyss, one to the oceans, and one to the airs above. Where they fell they corrupted the material world and made of it an evil place.
Some held there were four locations, with an ancient Donegal saying that they were “A part in the air, a part in the water, a part in the hills and the rocks, and a part in dark, foul hell”.
Even the name demna aeóir is borrowed from Church Latin, as scribes tried to encompass the old stories theologically. St Augustine spoke of their “airy” bodies, describing them as corpore aeria, airy in body, in de Civitate Dei, and repeatedly refers to the aerium corpus of demons in de Diuinatione Daemonum.
John Cassian described an atmosphere swarming with demonic spirits:
“Indeed, the very air that is spread between heaven and earth is teeming with a dense crowd of spirits, in which they flit about neither quietly nor lazily, so that divine Providence has to fully good purpose removed and hidden them from human sight.”
The seventh-century Irish Liber de ordine creaturarum describes the methods by which demons lure humans away from God:
“These treacherous and impure spirits are inconstant and subtle, their passible souls clothed in bodies of air. They never age... Deceitfully and by skilful fraud they disturb the senses of men and, bringing terror to mortals, they trouble their life by the worries of dreams and by the movements and distortions of their members”.
The Saints of Ireland had many conflicts with the demons of the air, Saint Patrick is said to have sprinkled holy water over the surviving members of Fionn’s fían, causing the thousand legions of demons who had hovered over their heads to disperse.
Saint Patrick was surrounded on a mountain by a host of demons in the shape of black birds. He banished the birds, and it is said that no demon came to Ireland for seven years, seven months, and seven days after the banishing, suggesting that the black birds may actually have been demons in bird form.
In Adomnán’s Vita Columbae, St Columba twice describes angels contending with hostile powers of the air. The saint entreats his monks to pray in aid of Abbot Comgell’s monks, because “at this moment they are fighting in the air against hostile powers that are trying to carry off the soul of a guest who has been drowned along with them”.
On another occasion, after the death of a monk, Columba observes the aerial battle for his soul, “Now I have seen holy angels at war in the air against the adversary powers”.
Another tale of his life considers the soul’s need to evade demons of the air at the time of death, “May he waft me past tortures!” Saint Columba also dispersed a zealous winged host of demons by casting into their midst a handful of red clay taken from the grave of Saint Ciarán of Clonmacnoise.
And yet even this great Saint was himself susceptible to the cackling demons of the air, as when companies of bards came to praise him, he was so afflicted with pride that the air above his head became full of demons, and nevermore are bards allowed to sing in Columba’s presence again.
Cairpre Cromm, the bishop of Clonmacnoise, was approached while at his prayers by a hideous shape. Questioned by the bishop, the being revealed itself to be the soul of Mael Ṡechnaill, a former king of Ireland. When asked why he had come to Cairpre Cromm, the soul replied
“When I was just now in the air, with a great throng of demons around me tormenting me on every side, something happened: we heard the sound of your voice praising the Lord. Then the demons were terrified at that time, and scattered throughout the regions of the air. For a demon cannot remain on earth or in the air for the space of one hour, for as far as the sound of your voice reaches when you are reciting your prayers.”
And yet for all that, some tales tell of less fearsome denizens of the windy heights, such as when Saint Brendan went on his voyages. He found an island with a fountain, over which grew an enormous tree. A flock of shining white birds perched upon its branches.
Weeping, Brendan prayed that the meaning of this would be revealed to him. A bird alighted near Brendan, and recognising God’s answer, the Saint asked the bird where they came from.
“We survive from the great destruction of the ancient enemy, but we are not associated with them through any sin of ours. When we were created, Lucifer’s fall and that of his followers brought our destruction also.
But our God is just and true. In his great judgment he sent us here. We endure no sufferings. Here we can see God’s presence. But God has separated us from sharing the lot of the others who were faithful. We wander through various regions of the air and the firmament of the earth, just like the other spirits that travel on their missions.
But on holy days and Sundays we are given bodies such as you now see so that we may stay here and praise the Creator.”
Clonmacnoise is marked on the map below!
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