“Adversity makes men, and prosperity makes monsters” – Victor Hugo
The traditional mythological monster or folkloric fiend usually had a fearsome flair for drama. It’s as if they knew we would be talking about them around our cathode-ray campfires for many generations after they’d done their worst, and wanted to ensure respectable ratings, garner some decent dialogue in the television adaptation, and leave us wondering if they were such terribly bad fellows after all. A mindless monster that emerges from the darkness, roars a mighty roar, and unceremoniously gobbles you up without even a snappy catch phrase doesn’t inspire great literature or scream Hollywood blockbuster. He might as well be a mundane, natural carnivore at that point. Don’t get me wrong. Being eaten sucks, particularly for the main course, but straight up consumption doesn’t have much of a story arc associated with it. A horde of the popular modern zombies lumbering at you is no doubt terrifying, but that’s pretty much the extent of their character development. Stagger forward. Bite. Repeat. Likewise, Aliens, the go-to monster of the modern age are so ethereal and aloof, and apparently rotten conversationalists. Hypnotize. Paralyze. Abduct. Poke. Return to the manufacturer. Bigfoot generally just runs away in a blur. Black-eyed kids? Just don’t let them in. And the 21st Century vampire tends to be a whiny aristocrat looking for love. If you’re a monster and looking for a little “street cred”, examine the antics of your esteemed historical predecessors who knew how to leave a legacy. At one time monsters were up for a challenge, keen on games of chance, tests of skill, intellectual duels, and epic contests, which ultimately equates to “playing with your food”, but both offered prey a fair (if slim) chance if they were up to it, as well as providing future screenwriters with engaging plots. It’s not that the modern monster is universally a mindless brute, rather he has no sense of fair play – either he can’t be argued with except by bashing his skull (because he doesn’t talk) or he is so morally bereft and supernaturally superior to humans, that we don’t really stand much of a chance. Monsters used to appreciate us, at least enough to argue with us. Take for instance, the Blue Men of the Minch.
The “Minch” (Sruth nam Fear Gorma, or “Channel of the Blue Men”) is a narrow, navigable channel (although known to be a pocket of relatively rough seas) between the northwest highlands of Scotland and the Hebrides Islands, also known as Skotlandsfjörð in Old Norse. It is rumored to be inhabited by an aquatic race of angry blue men whose main pastime was said to be looking for sailors to drown and boats to sink. The legend of the Blue Men of the Minch is that these nasty relatives of mermen (often referred to as “storm kelpies”) would sally forth from their underwater cave homes in the Hebrides, conjuring up storms to wreck ships and trying to tempt ship’s crews overboard with a variety of devious stratagems.
The Blue Men are found only in the Minch, an d chiefly in the strait which lies between the Island of Lewis and the Shant Isles (the charmed islands), and is called the “Sea-stream of the Blue Men”. They are not giants, like the Nimble Men, but of human size, and they have great strength. By day and by night they swim round and between the Shant Isles, and the sea there is never at rest. The Blue Men wear blue caps and have grey faces which appear above the waves that they raise with their long restless arms. In summer weather they skim lightly below the surface, but when the wind is high they revel in the storm and swim with heads erect, splashing the waters with mad delight. Sometimes they are seen floating from the waist out of the sea, and sometimes turning round like porpoises as they dive (Mackenzie,1917, p79).
Though they seem to be able to create fearsome storms (some folklorists hold that the Blue Men of the Minch are actually the descendants of Fomorii sorcerers who took to the seas after one of the many invasions of Ireland), the Blue Men, who are said to operate on a clan system under a chieftain prefer to engage in rhyming contests with passing ships. Should you out-rhyme their champion rhymer, your ship will be allowed to continue unhindered. Should you fail, you’re pretty much sunk. Better come with your rap-battling “A-game”, sailor, or you’ll be feeding the fishes. This of course has inspired many a sea shanty.
When the tide is at the turning, and the wind is fast
And not a wave is curling on the wide, blue deep,
Oh! the waters will be churning in the stream that never
Where the Blue Men are splashing round the charmed
As the summer wind goes droning o’er the sun-bright seas,
And the Minch is all a-dazzle to the Hebrides,
They will skim along like salmon — you can see their
And the flashing of their fingers in the Blue Men’s Stream.
But when the blast is raving and the wild tide races,
The Blue Men are breast-high with foam-grey faces;
They’ll plunge along with fury while they sweep the spray
Oh! they’ll bellow o’er the billows and wail upon the wind.
And if my boat be storm-tossed and beating for the bay,
They’ll be howling and be growling as they drench it with
For they’d like to heel it over to their laughter when it lists,
Or crack the keel between them, or stave it with their fists.
Oh! weary on the Blue Men, their anger and their wiles! .
The whole day long, the whole night long, they’re splash-
ing round the isles;
They’ll follow every fisher—ah! they’ll haunt the fisher’s
When billows toss, oh! who would cross the Blue Men’s
(MacDiarmid, 1920, p121)
Scholars of faeriedom have suggested that the Blue Men may have been a memory of ancient deities of the sea. “In the north and north-west Highlands the aurora borealis is called Na Fir Chlis (the nimble men) and “the merry dancers”. They are regarded as fairies (supernatural beings) like the sea ‘fairie’ Na Fir Ghorin (blue men), who were probably sea gods” (Mackenzie, 1922, p208). Another Gaelic theological interpretation of faeries, once Christianity had taken firm hold and overlaid its sensibilities on earlier traditions, is that faeries began their existence as arrogant angels who were cast out of heaven (some fell to land, some to sea, and the absolutely irredeemable were sent straight to Hell). By this reckoning, the Blue Men of the Minch are considered to be the descendants of the angels driven into the sea.
The fallen angels were driven out of Paradise in three divisions, one became the Fairies on the land, one the Blue Men in the sea, and one the Nimble Men [Fir Chlis], i.e. the Northern Streamers, or Merry Dancers, in the sky. This explanation belongs to the North Hebrides, and was heard by the writer in Skye. In Argyllshire the Blue Men are unknown, and there is no mention of the Merry Dancers being congeners of the Fairies. The person from whom the information was got was very positive he had himself seen one of the Blue Men. A blue-coloured man, with a long grey face [aodunn fada glas], and floating from the waist out of the water, followed the boat in which he was for a long time, and was occasionally so near that the observer might have put his hand upon him.
The channel between Lewis and the Shant Isles [Na h-Eileinean siant, the charmed islands] is called ‘the Stream of the Blue Men’ [Sruth nam Fear Gonri]. A ship, passing through it, came upon a blue-coloured man sleeping on the waters. He was taken on board, and being thought of mortal race, strong twine was coiled round and round him from his feet to his shoulders, till it seemed impossible for him to struggle, or move foot or arm. The ship had not gone far when two men were observed coming after it on the waters. One of them was heard to say, “Duncan will be one man,” to which the other replied, “Farquhar will be two.” On hearing this, the man, who had been so securely tied, sprang to his feet, broke his bonds like spider threads, jumped overboard, and made off with the two friends, who had been coming to his rescue (Campbell, 1900, p199-200).
There are some indications that the Blue Men of the Minch arrived in the Hebrides via Ireland and migrated as Christianity took hold there, and started to obscure the older religions. Alfred Percival Graves (1846-1931 A.D.), an Anglo-Irish poet, and oddly, school inspector observed that in the time of Irish High King Murtough Mac Erca (504-527 A.D.) “the country was divided between the old beliefs of paganism and the new doctrines of the Christian teaching. Part held with the old creed and part with the new, and the thought of the people was troubled between them, for they knew not which way to follow and which to forsake. The faith of their forefathers clung close around them, holding them by many fine and tender threads of memory and custom and tradition; yet still the new faith was making its way, and every day it spread wider and wider through the land”. Murtough himself was thought to have clung to the old ways, but his clan was moving steadily toward Christianization. This is exemplified by the tension in a story about Murtough’s encounter with a sorceress, interesting for our purposes since it makes note of a certain faction of blue men, raised as a military unit to contest the power of the King, and no doubt hinting at the Fomorian connection (the Fomorians being one of several races of mythical monster inhabiting Ireland before the Gaels arrived).
“Work for us,” says the King,” some of these great wonders.” Then Sheen went forth out of the house, and she set herself to work spells on Murtough, so that he knew not whether he was in his right mind or no. She took of the water of the Boyne and made a magic wine thereout, and she took ferns and spiked thistles and light puff-balls of the woods, and out of them she fashioned magic swine and sheep and goats, and with these she fed Murtough and the hosts. And when they had eaten, all their strength went from them, and the magic wine sent them into an uneasy sleep and restless slumbers. And out of stones and sods of earth she fashioned three battalions, and one of the battalions she placed at one side of the house, and the other at the further side beyond it, and one encircling the rest southward along the hollow windings of the glen. And thus were these battalions, one of them all made of men stark-naked and their colour blue, and the second with heads of goats with shaggy beards and horned; but the third, more terrible than they, for these were headless men, fighting like human beings, yet finished at the neck; and the sound of heavy shouting as of hosts and multitudes came from the first and the second battalion, but from the third no sound save only that they waved their arms and struck their weapons together, and smote the ground with their feet impatiently. And though terrible was the shout of the blue men and the bleating of the goats with human limbs, more horrible yet was the stamping and the rage of those headless men, finished at the neck (Graves, 1909, p243-244).
The Blue Men in the early 6th Century, while terrible creatures, do not yet seem to have aquatic associations, but then again, it wasn’t until about 558 A.D. when we see the first Christian High King of Ireland Diarmait mac Cerbaill. Things get uncomfortable for pagan monstrosities when all the monks start arriving, what with all their preaching about not eating each other or using human heads for kickballs. It stands to reason that the Blue Men might start looking for more hospitable climes. Dates in Irish proto-history are a little bit fast and loose, but by the 8th Century, Ireland started getting raided by Vikings on a regular basis. Then again, the history of Ireland constituted a long string of seafaring nomads landing on Erin’s shores and knocking heads, way back into mythological time.
From about 793-1066 A.D., those crazy Scandinavians really got around, using their maritime savvy to go raiding, trading, and rampaging across much of Europe, if not farther afield. The Norse were even believed to have spent a little time raiding the coast of Africa, since they actually had terminology that they applied to Africans i.e. they called them “Blue Men”, and may have precipitated their first encounter with the Irish.
The term blue men here applied to the Moors. There is some evidences of a Scandinavian connexion with parts of the narrative. The term, which is not Irish, was doubtless adopted by the Irish from those Scandinavian Vikings who first brought these Blue men into Ireland, for in the Icelandic Sagas it is the Norse name for Africans. In Swedish history Bluemen is the name always given to Moors or Africans, and “Great Blueland” the name by which Africa is designated (Haliday, 1882, p116).
That the Vikings did a little raiding along the coast of North Africa is reasonably well attested to. Pretty much anywhere they could reach by boat was probably going to get sacked at one time or another. And Vikings were generally not shy about hauling people away en masse as prisoners or slaves. In the mid-9th Century, it appears a well-organized Viking raid landed in Morocco, and they did what Vikings did best – killed, kidnapped, and hit the road with the spoils of war, returning to their bases in France, and according to the Annals of Ireland, making a few stops further north, their captured “blue men” in tow.
During these years the Vikings made one notable expedition far beyond the ordinary range of their activity. Starting from the Seine in 859 under the leadership of Bjorn and Hasteinn, they sailed round the Iberian Peninsula through the Straits of Gibraltar. They landed in Morocco and carried off prisoners many of the Moors or ‘Blue-men’ as they
called them. Some of these found their way to Ireland and are mentioned in certain Irish annals of the period. After fresh attacks on Spain they sailed to the Balearic Isles, and Roussillon, which they penetrated as far as Arles-sur-Tech. They wintered in the island of Camargue in the Rhone delta and then raided the old Roman cities of Provence and
sailed up the Rhone itself as far as Valence. In the spring of the next year they sailed to Italy (Mawer, 1913, p46).
The Irish and Scottish were none too fond of the Vikings, mostly because they were a prime and frequent target, and the term “Lochlann” in early medieval Irish literature refers generically to Scandinavia, while the adjectival form “Lochlannach” signifies “raider”, which is how they thought of the Vikings. Other accounts hold that the Blue Men originated in the Mauritanian region of Morocco, specifically citing its geographical relation to the Balearic archipelago near Spain, leaving little room for doubt that the Vikings not only spent time harassing medieval Europe, but tried their hands at Africa as well.
After this the Lochlanns passed over the country, and they plundered and burned the whole country; and they carried off a great host of them [the Mauritani] as captives to Erin, and these are the blue men [of Erin], for Mauri is the same as black men, and Mauritania is the same as blackness. It is wonderful if every third man of the Lochlanns
escaped, between the numbers who were killed and those who were drowned of them in the Gaditanean Straits. Long indeed were these blue men in Erinh. Mauritania is situated opposite the Balearic Isles (O’Donovan, 1860, p163).
Fragments of the Irish Annals (Fragment FA 330) clearly report that in 867 A.D., Vikings sailed from Morocco through the “Gaditanean Straits” (where the Irish Sea opens into the ocean), and hauled back “a great host” of Moroccan prisoners of war, perhaps to use as slaves or as mercenary axillaries in their incessant battering of the Gaels. At any rate, the Viking raids on Morocco appear to have been fairly rough, since they don’t seem to have had the manpower to keep control, many of the so-called “blue men” escaping into Ireland, and no doubt holding a rather sever grudge. I mean, compare the weather in Morocco vs. Ireland. I’d be feeling pretty murderous, too. An alternative theory put forward is that the “Blue Men” were invited to Ireland for the purpose of driving out the nasty Vikings.
This was a new and singular variety in the composite race, called Irish, and speculation might be indulged as to the particular quarter in which any of this blood could be detected. One might fancy the blue to be black, or a blue-black. One story is that the Lochlanns stole the poor fellows from Morocco, and used them for their slaves; but another version is that the Blues were imported for the purpose of driving out the Danes…Anyhow, the supposed veracious ‘Annals of Ireland’ declares they came between 571 and 910, and that “long indeed were these Blue men in Erin.” Their descendants would, at least, have done something to mitigate the evil of so many white Sassenachs settling and mixing with the other Irish for the last seven hundred years (Bonwick, 1880, p61).
That there were “blue men” in Ireland, Scotland, and Hebrides sometime between 500-1000 A.D. seems fairly clear as does their association with the Vikings, but whether they were unfortunate Moroccans, Fomorian monsters, or ancient sea gods with an axe to grind is a matter for debate. A few things are apparent about the Blue Men of the Minch. They’re responsible for the storm-tossed seas of the Hebridean Sruth nam Fear Gorma. They hate ships. They like to rhyme. They like to rhyme so much, that they are sportingly willing to give you a chance to avoid an eternity in Davy Jone’s Locker if only you can impress them with your lyrical skills. A good monster is a test of our humanity, rather than our current fascination with the effective implementation of large quantities of ordinance, which makes for stunning visual effects, but imply that mere humanity alone is never sufficient to overcome the predations of a determined monster. Comfortable in our social and technological cocoons, we don’t like to remember that for the better part of human existence we were not the apex predator that we are today, and much of our mythology is about convincing ourselves that we can use our big monkey brains to talk our way out of being eaten (although, don’t try this with a tiger. It ends badly). As British scientist Robert Winston observed, “In prehistoric times, Homo sapiens was deeply endangered. Early humans were less fleet of foot, with fewer natural weapons and less well-honed senses than all the predators that threatened them. Moreover, they were hampered in their movements by the need to protect their uniquely immature young – juicy meals for any hungry beast.” As our species matured, we realized that intellect was a powerful weapon in hauling ourselves up the food chain, thus we started talking to our folkloric monsters. Now that we’re on top, the need to talk to the monster has once again waned, and what truly scares us are insurmountable physical forces that cannot be reasoned with. I for one am going to practice my rhyming skills. Just in case.
Bonwick, James, 1817-1906. Who Are the Irish? London: Bogue, 1880.
Campbell, John Gregorson, 1836-1891. Superstitions of the Highlands & Islands of Scotland. Glasgow: J. MacLehose and sons, 1900.
Graves, Alfred Perceval, 1846-1931. The Irish Fairy Book. New York: F. A. Stokes Co., 1909.
Haliday, Charles, 1789-1866. The ScandinavianKingdom of Dublin. Dublin: A. Thom, 1882.
MacDiarmid, Hugh, 1892-1978. Northern Numbers: Being Representative Selections From Certain Living Scottish Poets. Edinburgh: T.N. Foulis, 1920.
Mackenzie, Donald A. 1873-1936. Wonder Tales From Scottish Myth & Legend. London: Blackie and Son, Ltd., 1917.
Mackenzie, Donald A. 1873-1936. Ancient Man In Britain. London [etc.]: Blackie and son limited, 1922.
Mawer, A. 1879-1942. The Vikings. Cambridge [Eng.]: University Press, 1913.
O’Donovan, John, 1809-1861, Duald Mac Firbis, and BibliotheÌ€que royale de Belgique. Annals of Ireland: Three Fragments. Dublin: Irish Archaeological and Celtic Society, 1860.