Seasonal lore: the ‘Sea Mither’ of the Northern Isles

by Sharon Blackie

As the clocks sprang forward by an hour this weekend, it seems that we have no excuse (not even the dire weather) to imagine that we’re in any season other than spring. It’s official. And so, after my last post about the Cailleach and some of the other Gaelic folklore associated with Spring Equinox, I thought I’d offer up another item of seasonal lore, this time from the Northern Isles.

As a personification of the forces that affect everyday life, the myth of the Sea Mither (mother), or the Mither o’ the Sea, is one of the oldest surviving strands of Orcadian folklore.

The Sea Mither represents the benign force of the summer sea. She was said to grant life to every living thing, bringing warmth to the oceans and calming the storms that were the sorrow of many an Orkney family. But as in all good tales, the forces of good must have a bitter nemesis – and the Sea Mither was no exception. She had a very powerful, and hostile, rival in Teran, the spirit of winter. (Teran’s name derives from the local dialect and means ‘furious anger’.) Teran’s screaming voice could be heard in the fury of the winter gales, and his anger was seen in the mountainous waves crashing against the coastline.

Each spring, around the Spring Equinox, the Sea Mither would return to Orkney to take up her summer residence in the sea. Her return always prompted the beginning of the ‘Vore Tullye’ – the Spring Struggle – which was a fierce battle she fought against Teran, which lasted for weeks and manifested itself in devastating storms that churned the sea into a boiling froth.

However, the result of this conflict did not change from year to year. The Sea Mither had returned, refreshed and strong, and would always triumph over her adversary. Once she had overcome him, she firmly bound Teran at the bottom of the sea – and so began the Sea Mither’s beneficent reign. She immediately set to work restoring the damage caused by Teran during the winter months. She stilled his violent storms and calmed the raging sea. Warmth and life returned to the water, interrupted only by the occasional squall, caused by Teran as he struggled to break his magical bonds.

But as winter approached and the Autumn Equinox grew near, the Sea Mither, exhausted now by her labours over the summer, was forced to confront Teran again. He had broken free of his shackles, and so another battle – the ‘Gore Vellye’ or Autumn Tumult – ensued. But this time, Teran would emerge victorious, gripping the islands once more in his fierce and terrible embrace. His foe would be banished, and Teran would once again reign supreme. For a while, every living creature had to submit to his tyrannous rule.

During these dreadful days of winter, the Sea Mither was said to be able to hear the cries of every drowning man, consoling herself in the knowledge that, when spring arrived, she would return, refreshed and invincible, and prevail once again.

Image: ‘Teran and Mither o’ Sea by breath-art on DeviantArt

This story can be found in The Mermaid Bride and other Orkney folk tales by Tom Muir, and online at http://www.orkneyjar.com/folklore/mither.htm

One Reply to “Seasonal lore: the ‘Sea Mither’ of the Northern Isles”

  1. Aurora J Stone says: Reply

    I remember when I lived on Westray and we had journeys around the equinoxes. The weather was most unpredictable and we told the about the contention between the Mithers. When we had crossings to mainland of Orkney and then further to the mainland of Scotland at those times, and the seas were quite rough and the wind was usually up.

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