Oberion: King of the Faeries

herne-drawn-by-george-cruikshank-c-1843The name appears in several earlier novels by MacGregor including, There and Back Again, Camberwick, and throughout his Arthurian Cycle where Oberion is a father-figure to Merlin. The name has no known antecedents in Scottish folklore but appears in several medieval accounts, including a number of French chanson de geste, or ‘song of heroic deeds’ where the name is variously given as Oberon, Oberyon, Huon or Auberon. In the handful of medieval English texts where Oberion appears he is merely a familiar spirit summoned by an incantation to do a person’s will, whereas in the chanson de geste he is honoured as Le Roi de Féerie, or ‘King of the Faeries’. It is the latter role he takes MacGregor’s novels.

anvil-films-support-bard-of-tweeddaleA King of the Faeries appears under various names in the folklore of Wales, Germany and Scandinavia, but is curiously absent from Scottish myth and folklore. In Wales he is Gwyn ap Nudd, King of the Tylwyth Teg or ‘fair folk’. ‘Ap’ is a patronymic indicating Gwyn is the son of Nudd and Nudd may be cognate with the Irish god Nuada, or perhaps both Nuada and Nudd derive from Nodens, the horned-god of the Celts who were the pre-Roman inhabitants of the Britannic Isles. Mythologists have proposed that the deities and beliefs of an invaded and overrun race or culture are invariably supplanted or subsumed by those of the invader. The Romans and Romano-British, for example, were adept at accommodating the earlier Celtic deities, such as Sabrina of the River Severn, in their temples while the later invading Anglo-Saxons imposed their own Germanic deities onto the land while the old gods became creatures of the supernatural realm and condemned to haunt the hills, woods and byways, in common with the faeries. Thus, a deity once worshipped by human folk might well find himself relegated to King of Faerieland. The Christianisation of the Britannic Isles eventually displaced all the old gods and with no pantheon to accommodate them in a monotheistic faith all were thrust into the shadows beyond this world.alberich-and-the-rhine-maidens-drawn-by-arthur-rackham-1910In Germany the king of the faeries is Alberich, ruler (reix) of the Elbe, or elves, with the elven folk being cognate with the faeries or Beann Sidhe of Scottish myth and folklore. Alberich is often portrayed as a malignant dwarf in which guise he is guardian of the Niebelung’s treasure in the Nibelungenlied, or ‘Song of the Niebelung’, the epic medieval poem later made famous by the composer Richard Wagner. Whether Alberich, ruler of the elves, and Alberich the dwarf treasure-hoarder have been conflated or whether Alberich’s portrayal is down to Christian writers literally diminishing and blackening his pagan character is uncertain.

In Norse myth, Alberich is cognate with the god, Freyr, whose name is more accurately given as Yngvi-Freyr; Freyr being an honorific title rather than a given name. Uncommonly, although ruler of the Álfar or elves, Yngvi-Freyr was not elf-born but son of the sea god, Njörðr (Njord). All the realms in Norse myth are under the rule of the gods, or Vanir, and Njord shows this by giving Ingvi-Freyr dominion of Álfheimr (elf-home) as a teething-present, given at the first cutting of a tooth. Unlike the dwarvish Alberich, Yngvi-Freyr is a handsome warrior, sometimes depicted with an erect phallus and associated with fair-weather, fertility and virility, and with numerous lovers, including his twin sister, Freyja.frey-and-his-steedgolden-bristle-jacques-reich-1900-courtesy-aesgir-institute-osloNjord and the Celtic Nodens are associated with the sea and fishing and it is suggested that both are embodied in the Fisher King, the wounded ruler of a waste land who appears in Arthurian Myth (see “Maimed Heroes”) The Fisher King’s wound is a euphemism for castration – the wasting of his realm being a direct consequence – and there may be an echo of this in Yngvi-Freyr who gave up his magic sword in exchange for marriage to the beautiful Gerthr and as a result was fated to perish at Ragnarok, the End of the Gods.parsival-and-the-fisher-king-from-perceval-le-conte-du-graal-by-chretien-de-troyes-unknown-artist-ca-1280In Scottish myth and folklore, and to a lesser extent its Eirish equivalent (Scotland and Eireland share much of their Gaelic heritage) no single character or name appears in the role of king of the faeries. This may be consequent on the divided and often internecine clan system that flourished in both countries until the medieval period when a more recognisable structure of kingship appeared. To put it another way, Scots and Eirish culture did not acknowledge any individual having dominion over the faeries any more than an individual had dominion over Scotland or Eireland. MacGregor’s describes Oberion as having horns like a stag and a similar antlered god appears on the Gundestrup Cauldron discovered near the village of that name in Denmark in 1891. The figure is believed to be the Celtic god Cernunnos and one can see in that name a distant echo of the Irish gods already mentioned. Other horned gods are styled after bulls – the Minotaur may be regarded as a fallen god – or goats and often the entire head, not just the horns, takes the animal form, and under various names and guises they are found world-wide. I should add that there is no clear distinction between faith and mythology, other than, perhaps, the latter is more studied than practised, and vice versa.detail-of-antlered-figure-on-the-gundestrup-cauldronIn Christian iconography the Antichrist is often depicted with horns and this has led to an unfortunate conflation between those who revere the old horned gods, and Satanists. I have myself had many heated discussion with fellow Christians on this exact point, especially at mid-summer eve when Avebury becomes a magnet for Wicca-folk. It may well be that the early Christian missionaries deliberately conflated the old gods with the enemy of Christ in their effort to convert our pagan ancestors, but Herne, Oberion, and Cernunnos, along with the other members of the pre-Christian pantheon, are not at all like Satan in nature. He, I fear, is a quite distinct entity.the-demon


Bard of Tweeddale

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