The Sith Lords

We are approaching the hours of Halloween.  Let me let you in on a secret, in case you didn't know it.  Do you know what a Sith Lord is?  An American is likely to think that he does.

But perhaps you aren't quite right.
In his manuscript, The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies, Reverend Robert Kirk, minister of the Parish of Aberfoyle, Stirling, Scotland, wrote in 1691:
These Siths or Fairies they call Sleagh Maith or the Good People...are said to be of middle nature between Man and Angel, as were Daemons thought to be of old; of intelligent fluidous Spirits, and light changeable bodies (lyke those called Astral) somewhat of the nature of a condensed cloud, and best seen in twilight. These bodies be so pliable through the sublety of Spirits that agitate them, that they can make them appear or disappear at pleasure.
The word "Sith" is a variation of "Sidhe," immortals living in the fairy mounds.  I say in the fairy mounds, but the word "Sidhe" is distinct from the fae, whose names are liked with the old Latin "fate," and associated with the goddesses of that kind.  They are distinct also from elves, which is of Norse extraction, alfar, meaning "white."  These elves appear to be the honored dead, encountered by us in a shining form.

No, the fae are alien, associated with the order of the universe, and the Sith a subset of these.

The American usage -- "Sith" -- tracks to that ancient Celtic use.  No surprise:  John Williams used one of the poems of Taliesin, translated into Sanskrit, as the background track for a song on the Phantom Menace CD.

So here you have been given a hint as to what the Sith are.  But do you understand what they really are?


BillT said...

Zombie dwarf vampires from Mars?

Grim said...

That's one theory... yours...

Lucas drew from Northern European languages ("Darth Vader" means, literally, "Dark Father," for example). So here's one more example. The Lords of the Sith, though, is the ancient Celtic use -- and it's a very powerful race indeed that is being named.

Joseph W. said...

The Unseelie Court?

I haven't watched the second trilogy. I don't object to reimaginings of old legends, and doubt there's any such thing as an unsullied original anyway. But the first trilogy didn't lead me to believe that this reimagining, whatever it may be, was worth a further look.

Grim said...

Interestingly, no -- though the words seem at first glance to be the same words, they aren't. The 'Seelie court' and 'Unseelie Court' look like they should be related to 'Sidhe,' but they actually come from the Old English and not the Gaelic root. They are related in etymology to our modern English 'silly,' which could in the Middle English (and therefore, the Scots -- not Scottish Gaelic, but the Anglo-Norman Scots tongue) mean "happy." Chaucer used it this way.

No, these are the lords of the Sidhe themselves, the race of the Tuatha Dé Danann, who went underground as part of a treaty with the Milesians -- the ancestors of the modern Irish. After a great battle, the Tuatha De asked for a truce in which the Milesians would anchor their ships nine waves' distance from shore for three days. When they agreed, the Tuatha De called up a great storm that was meant to sink the ships.

Unfortunately for them, the Gaels had one of their great poets with them -- a man named Amergin. He used the magic of his song to calm the storm. Impressed, the Tuatha De agreed to allow him to adjudicate the question of how the land would be divided between them and the Milesians. Amergin ruled that the Milesians would have the part above ground, and the Tuatha De the part below.

Thus they passed into the fairy mounds, led by Manannan mac Lir -- lord of the Isle of Man, supposed to be named after him, and also of a place called "Emhain Ablach," the Isle of Apple Trees. But that is the Gaelic; in the Latin, that island is called Insula Avallonis, which is to say, Avalon.

Joseph W. said...

So the pun I used to make about a Spanish jester who wanted to be "keeng of the fairies" because they came from the "seely court" wasn't so witty after all.

Unless Lucas & Co. did something fantastic in the second trilogy, a thing I seriously doubt, this is a case where the old tales are far superior to any reimaginings.

Grim said...

Well, as to that, do you know the root for "imagination"?

The imagination first appears in Aristotle's theory of the soul. It is literally an 'imaging' faculty: it lets us take things we have seen before, and 're-image' them in our minds. Thus we can work out what is essential to them, and what is accidental: for example, it is essential to a table that it has the ability to hold things up, but it is accidental whether it is colored one way or another.

This allows us to take our sense perceptions, which are of particulars, and arrive at the universal form that lies behind them.

So why are the old tales so superior? Maybe they were better at getting to the truth of the forms; which could be because they had better imaginations, or because they had better original perceptions from which to 're-image.'

MikeD said...

Correct me if I am wrong, but is not Sidhe actually pronounced "shee" and not "sith"?

I know Sith is a valid alternate for Sidhe, but it IS just a word. "Jedi" probably has meaning in another language as well. I would not take it to mean that Lucas meant for his Sith to be a direct representation of the Sidhe.

Grim said...

Your pronunciation is right according to how Gaelic is currently spoken; but recall that the language almost died out, and was purposefully revived in the 19th century by Irish nationalists. That happened to Latin, too -- the revival in the case of Latin was by German scholars, which is why kids who learn Latin in school today are taught to pronounce the "V" as a "W."

Did that happen to Sith/Sidhe? That's hard to say. The "Sith" version is Scottish, where the Scots and Scottish Gaelic are both spoken. Or it could be that we are the ones who changed the pronunciation; a Gael might have pronounced "Sith" is pronounced exactly as "Sidhe" ('dh' is pronounced very similarly to 'th' in Old Norse and Old English, of which Norse especially was important to medieval Scotland in the Gaelic-speaking regions). We received the word as "Sith," and pronounced it according to American rules.

That Lucas and his crew were looking at myths when creating Star Wars, though, is well known; and the Williams citation of these legends is noted in the original post.

Joseph W. said...

Well, I want to be clear that I don't always think the old versions are superior. A long time ago, I used to feel that way, and think that changing the old stories was "inauthentic" - I don't now.

As I commented before when we were talking about Robin Hood, I think the stories we have now probably took a lot of modifying before they were ever written down - I can't help but suspect, for example, that they got an extra anti-clerical "wash" sometime after England went Protestant. (And as I commented to you in email, I think the more recent movie we've seen is an excellent reimagining - setting Richard the Crusader as the hero, and his restoration to power as the "happy ending," would make little sense to a modern audience and would undercut the heroic nature of the tales. Pointing to Magna Carta as the happy ending was dead clever.)

It's just that, in the particular case of Lucas and the Star Wars series - again going by the first trilogy - I have a low opinion of it; the third film in particular turned me off to the whole series.

P.S. - For reimagining an old tale into "space opera" - the best example I've seen is Stephen R. Donaldson's "Gap" series, which draws a lot of its inspiration from Wagner's Ring Cycle, which of course itself was heavily changed from its own source material. In each case, I admire the artist because the changes told an excellent story with the tools available in his time, and I think that fits the spirit of the older tales better than a simple recitation.

Grim said...

Oh, I agree that a re-imagining can be tremendously useful -- especially in cases when our understanding of the universe has changed on some substantial point. To choose an example from philosophy instead of artwork, the medieval philosophers who updated Aristotle were deeply in Aristotle's debt, but there were some points at which improvements in physics or optics or logical systems needed to be incorporated.

It may be less important to update artwork to accord with science; the greater value may lie in learning to understand the old system of science, so you have a broader understanding of how we came to believe what we currently believe. Your example of political reality, though, shows how this can play out: Robin Hood probably does need an update to some sort of social-contract theory instead of "Richard was the true king" theory in order to be relevant to our world. (By the same token, though, I like that they return to the original 'contract' -- that is, the Magna Carta, which is a very good example of how we would more rightly think of these things as treaties than as contracts. It's helpful in focusing people's mind on the nature of their relationship to the government, which deserves loyalty insofar as it defends their rights, and yet deserves revolt when it does otherwise.)