The Night of the Ogress
One interesting old tradition, once
celebrated every February, was found in the island of Papay. The last occurrence of "Gyro Night", however, was in 1914 and it
is now but a memory.
The actual date of "Gyro Night" is not
found in any surviving account, but one reference indicates that
the ceremony took place after the first full moon in February.
connects the tradition with the Christian festival of Candlemas, as well as the Celtic celebration of Imbolc - an event marking the end
of winter and the beginning of spring.
But although we are not certain of the date, we do know that on Gyro Night
the young boys of the island made torches, which they set
alight before venturing out into the night.
The object of their foray was to entice the "gyros"
out of hiding.
These gyros were usually the older lads, wearing masks
and dressed as repulsive old women. If the torchbearers met a gyro, "she"
would pursue the youngsters, striking at them with a piece of rope,
or tangle, until they were able to outrun "her".
The origin of the tradition is unclear, however it is likely that gyro derives from the Norse, gygr, meaning a giant, troll-woman.
But what was the significance of this monstrous woman?
The key appears to lie in an account that refers to the burning of
a female effigy on Gyro Night. This seems to confirm that Gyro Night was connected to Imbolc, the Celtic celebration of winter's end.
The winter hag and the reborn goddess
The fact that the tradition took place on Papay is particularly interesting, given the island's association with early Christianity.
Imbolc was particularly associated with the pagan Celtic goddess Brigid and, in keeping with the policy of the early church to absorb pagan festivals into Christian feast-days, Brigid, became St Bride.
St Bride's Day became equated with Candlemas on February 2 - the feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. So, the fires that were an integral part of the pagan festival - in particular the torchlight processions leading to a bonfire - were tamed down, with candles replacing the burning brands.
Looking to Celtic tradition, we can begin to see information that appears to shed light on Papay's Gyro Night.
For example, in the Scottish Highlands, and Ireland, an effigy of the spirit of winter - the Cailleach, or Old Wife, was burned on a bonfire. This wizened crone was thought to be reborn at Imbolc in the form of the goddess Brigid.
Did the later Norse inhabitants of Papay incorporate these existing traditions, interpreting the old woman of winter as the ogress-like Gygr? The presence of traditions surrounding Brigid/Bride would seem to be borne out by the occurrence of 'Bride' placenames in Papay.
But what of the connection to the Norse orgress? For that we need to look at the Celtic
idea that the reborn goddess emerged from a burial mound.
rhyme about the Feast Day of Bride begins:
This is the day of Bride,
The queen will come from the mound
To the Norse Orcadians, the usual inhabitant of
burial mounds was the monstrous creature known as the
Over the centuries, the draugr beliefs degenerated into those of the trows and hogboon, but original fragments of lore hint that the mound's
original inhabitant could often be found with his mother - a beast said
to be even more terrible than her son.
So do we have a situation where the islanders equated the Celtic hag in
the mound with their ideas of a monstrous ogress dwelling in the
howe? And was this the reason the Celtic night of the Goddess became equated with the Scandinavian
the lack of other information about this lost tradition, speculation
is all we have left.