Celtic folklore has given us some of the darkest and most frightening stories in history including three-headed monsters, headless horsemen, famine-spreaders, and a variety of creepy spirits.
One of the most fascinating are probably the Sluagh na marbh (host of the dead), or “Fairy Host”, spirits of the unforgiven or restless dead who soared the skies at night searching for humans to pick off, and especially the dying.
Some believed them to be Fallen Angels, while others thought them the spirits of unbaptized children who had returned to earth to seek their revenge.
But, in any case, they was more feared than even Death itself. Death was easy. The Sluagh, was something entirely different.
Even Death has no choice but to defer to them, in an otherworldly race for the immortal souls of the living.
One of the earliest reports of the Sluagh, meaning “host” in Irishm dates back about 1690 and, in some stories, they were armies fighting battles in the sky.
Prior to the introduction of Christianity into Scotland and Ireland, they were believed to be some ill-begotten form of faerie folk, with no reason, no loyalty, and no mercy. However, once Christianity came upon the isles, the concept was transformed into a pack of unforgiven, unrepentant, dead sinners. And yes…the Sluagh were thought to be once human.
Huddling and hiding in forgotten and dark places, they lay in wait for nightfall and, once the sun has left the sky, they strike out, in what, to the untrained or unsuspecting eye, appears to be a vast and ominous flock of large ravens or other birds. Not by chance, countless cultures and legends still link black birds (and especially ravens) as evil omens or signals of upcoming misfortune.
On the Isle of Barra was told that the spirits fought great battles in the air and that their crimson blood may be seen staining rocks and stones still today. ‘Fuil nan sluagh’, their blood, is the beautiful red of the rocks, melted by frost.
In other stories, the Sluagh were not so much an army as a scourge, that took the form of gusts of wind, burning skin and causing boils.
Alternatively, they were winged, like terrible and destructive birds.
In Irish mythology, the Sluagh were said to fly in from the west to steal a dying soul before it was given Last Rites. To this day, doors and windows on the west sides of houses are kept closed if there is a sick or dying person at home to keep the spirits out.
The most dangerous time, of course was Samhain, the liminal time, when the gates of hell would open and they would ride forth.
Woe betide anyone who was out alone!
Sometimes the humans were returned, but they were never the same again.
Somewhere was told of how the Sluagh carried humans off into the skies, returning them exhausted and prostrate.
According to one story, “The beautiful daughter of a king of France was taken up by the ‘hosts,’ and carried about in the air, over lands and seas, continents and islands, till they came to the little island of Heistamal, behind Creagorry, in Benbecula, where they laid her down in such an injured state that she died from the hard treatment; not, however, till she had told about the lands to which she had been carried, and of the great hardships she had endured while travelling through space.”
In any case, several stories talk of men being whisked away and returned a day or two later, confused, exhausted and not remembering where they’d been.
Had they been enjoying the whisky bottle a little too much, or had they perhaps been suffering from mental health issues that at the time weren’t understood?
Though, sometimes the stories are absolutely disturbing, as well as their appearance: haggard and thin, skin barely clinging to bone in a pitiful version of what used to be human form, the Sluagh are bird-like even when not in flight. Leathery wings are kept close to their bodies, forming a weathered sort of cape or cloak. Hands and feet of bony claws, sparse strings of hair covering their heads, gnarled pointed teeth protruding from a beak-like mouth.
In 1911, a scholar named Walter Evans-Wentz travelled through Ireland, Scotland, and England from 1908–1910, collecting local descriptions of experiences with the creatures, publishing them in his book, “The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries”. Among the stories was an account from Scotland about a child who was “taken” by the Sluagh, and only after his soul had been extracted, the lifeless body was dropped from a “great height” and found outside at the back of the house the next morning.
He also gathered many reports of Sluagh sightings, all similar: a vast, swarming, churning cloud of large black birds. Apparently, in towns that the birds flew over, there was a spike in the incidence of death among the populations. Coincidence? Maybe. But the Sluagh was every bit as real to the locals as the sheep in their fields. Superstition and belief was, and is, very influent, in a mix that is still very much popular today especially in parts of the Celtic and British Isles.
Others too have been inspired by the Sluagh.
2020 horror film “The Haunting of Grady Farm” re-imagines the Sluagh and places the tale in rural Florida while, in the Legacy of Kain video game series, The Sluagh feature as one of the enemy creatures, presented as scavenging beasts that prey on souls.
Despite the origins of the Sluagh largely stem from Scotland and Ireland over a thousand years ago, there are accounts found in many countries of beings fitting their description: the German, French, Czech, Polish, Scandinavian, and Russian cultures all have some version of the creatures, in mad pursuit, riding the winds for hapless souls.
Some thought their sight was a prelude to war or some terrible widespread catastrophe.
The most recent account I have found of The Sluagh is from the early twentieth century.
That is not to say, however, that these creatures no longer exist. Avoid travelling the roads alone in the dead of night, especially at Samhain (October 31/November 1).
And if you glimpse a flock of black birds over your head, make sure they are what they seem.
Oh, but I forgot…you’re a grown up. Never mind.
They are probably just regular ol’ birds. Probably.
Images from web – Google Research