Mad Sweeney, the most unlucky Leprechaun in the world, played only a secondary role in Neil Gaiman’s novel, but in its TV adaptation, and mostly thanks to Pablo Schreiber’s magnetic performance, it has become one of its most compelling characters. In this episode, we finally get to know his story as told in the legend of Buile Shuibhne (or the Madness of Sweeney), a folk retelling of the life of Suibhne mac Colmain, the 6th-century Irish king of the Dál nAraidi. It is also an episode about the importance of storytelling or, as Mr. Ibis argues, the ability of stories to convey truths that are more important and relevant than facts.
So let’s break down some of the religious references in the episode, which include the legend of Buile Shuibhne, Saint Patrick, Saint Ronan, the Sun God Lugh, and the Song of Songs, among others. From now on, beware of spoilers…
The Most Unlucky Leprechaun In The World
The episode begins with Mad Sweeny, down on his luck (literally), under a bridge near Cairo, where Shadow founds him. Sweeney tells Shadow that he just saw Laura in New Orleans and that she is looking for him. Sweeney also warns Shadow that he is in danger:
“This is Kellos ground you are walking, and there is a rope around your neck, and a raven bird in each shoulder waiting for your eyes, the gallows tree has deep roots and they stretch from the Heaven all the way down to Hell
I am not totally sure what Sweeney means when he refers to Kellos (is this a reference to Kells, the place in Ireland where the famous Book of Kells was found?), but the gallows tree refers to Yggdrasil, the World Tree or the Gallows Tree, that played such an important role in the story of Odin, and that will play a central role in our story.
The Old Gods Alliance
Back at Mr. Ibis’ funeral home in Cairo, Wednesday has gathered some of the Old Gods (Mr. Ibis, Anansi, the Jinn) to warn them of the battle that is coming. After the meeting, he is alone with Shadow and fixes his spear, Gungnir, with the help of a branch from Yggdrasil. He gives the spear to Shadow.
The Power to Destroy
On her way from New Orleans to Cairo, Laura meets again with Mama-ji, the incarnation of the Hindu goddess Kali. Laura is looking for the two drops of blood infused with love that will complete the potion given to her by Baron Samedi in New Orleans, and that will allow her to come back from the dead. Kali, though, tells her that she is missing the point, that she now has immense power, “the power to destroy,” and that coming back from the dead might not be what she really wants.
Laura, it seems, is on the wrong journey. She thinks she is making her way back from the dead, all the way back to Shadow, while her real journey might be to discover who she really is and embrace it. In a theme that has become central to the show, Laura, like many other characters in the show (Shadow, and even Sweeney), need to stop letting other people tell them what their story is and need to write their own.
Your Love Is Better Than Wine
Bilquis, the Old Goddess of Love, also in Cairo, has discovered a new way to stay relevant. Christianity has taken away many of her followers, which seems unfair since Bilquis was love way before Jesus claimed to be love. The trick is to find a way in which her understanding of love (carnal, sensual) overlaps with the Christian understanding of love, and she finds it, of all places, in the Bible itself, in the Song of Songs, a unique book in the Bible that doesn’t focus on law or dogma, but on sensual love (if you don’t believe me, read it!).
She has become a priestess that seduces her worshippers by reinterpreting the Bible in a way that stays true to who she is, and that might uncover a deeper meaning to the text that Christians might have forgotten: the power and promises of carnal love
Let him kiss me with kisses of his mouth,
for your love is better than wine,
better than the fragrance of your perfumes.
Your name is a flowing perfume—
therefore young women love you.
Draw me after you! Let us run!
The king has brought me to his bed chambers.
Let us exult and rejoice in you;
let us celebrate your love: it is beyond wine!
Rightly do they love you!
It seems only fair that Bilquis is doing what Christianity has done for hundreds of years (to be fair, most religions!). She is appropriating existing beliefs, practices, and scriptures, and giving them a new meaning. Religions are like the layers of the Earth. We only care about the crust, which sustains life on our planet, but deep down there are tectonic plates and other layers that are equally important even though we do not see them. A similar phenomenon happens with religions. The Goddess Bilquis disappeared, but a record of what she represented can still be found in texts like the Song of Songs. In the episode, she is just reclaiming what she thinks is rightfully hers, and she does it by using the same techniques that were used against her.
Mad Sweeney the King
The core of the episode, though, focuses on the story of Mad Sweeney. For most of the story, we have been told that he is a Leprechaun, and the most unlucky of them all to boot. But while that might be what he has become, this is not who he really is. This episode offers two different versions of Sweeney’s origin story. A historical one, and a mythical one. Which one is true, will be up to us.
The first one, presents Sweeny as Suibhne mac Colmain, the 7th-century king of the Dál nAraidi, a small kingdom in the Northeast of Ireland. In the 5th century, Christianity was introduced in Ireland by St. Patrick. By the 7th century, Christianity was making important inroads, and the gods, beliefs, and practices of the local population were disappearing under that pressure. In the episode, Sweeney makes a funny joke about how all their traditions became “fucking fairies and leprechauns.” According to legend, the king was driven mad by St. Ronan, when he tried to expel him as well as the Christian religion from Ireland.
Mad Sweeny the God
Mr. Ibis, though, offers Sweeney a different take. He tells him that he was not simply a king, but a god. He was Lugh, the Celtic Sun God, and a fierce warrior at that. That’s why there are all of those stories of Leprechauns as protecting a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. In its modern representations, the stories of Lugh the god, and Suibhne mac Colmain were conflated in the legend of Mad Sweeney, which gave us the naughty but loveable modern Leprechaun.
Stories Are Truer Than Truth
It is never clear what Mad Sweeny really was, King or God (maybe both), but the point that Ibis is trying to make is that it might not matter, that the power of stories, “is truer than truth,” since they make sense of a world that would not make any sense otherwise. We believe in gods not because they are real, but because we need them to make sense of reality. That’s their truth.
All Stories End
At the end of the episode, we see Sweeney ready to end his story. He is done with Wednesday as well as with life. This is the end of his story, and he needs to write it himself, not only by remembering his own past (or inventing his past) but by writing his own honorable end. And so he tries to kill Wednesday and gets killed in the process by Shadow. We will miss Sweeney, who was not, after all, the most unlucky Leprechaun in the world, but a king, or a god, or both.
Next Week: American Season 2 Finale
“In the aftermath of Sweeney’s death, Wednesday has disappeared and Shadow is tormented; those that remain witness the power of New Media as she is unleashed; the nation is in a state of panic brought on by Mr. World.”