Fairies are beings who occupy a middle realm between Earth and heaven. Fairies have magical powers and aresometimes associated with Demons and Fallen Angels. In lore, they are capable of bewitchment and Possession, requiring Exorcism.
Fairy originates from the Latin word fata, or “fate,” and evolved from faerie, a state of enchantment. According to lore, fairies themselves do not like the word; they prefer to be called by more respectful names, such as “the Good Neighbors,” “the Gentry,” “the People of Peace,” “the Strangers,” “Themselves,” “The Seely (Blessed) Court,” and other terms. Fairies are often referred to as “the Little People.” In medieval times fairy sometimes described women who had magical powers.
Fairy beliefs are universal and ancient, and there are a variety of explanations of their origins. Celtic fairy lore is particularly strong and absorbed Christian elements. In Irish lore, the fairies are descended from the Tuatha de Danaan, the early inhabitants of Ireland. When the Mil invaded, the Tuatha de Danaan used supernatural powers to become invisible and withdraw into the hills. From them arose the gods, demigods, heroes, and the fairies.
Other explanations for the origins of fairies are the following:
• Souls of the unbaptized and pagan dead, trapped between heaven and Earth
• Guardians of the dead, living in an otherworld that exists between the living and the dead. They have the power to take people, and when they do, those people die
• Ancestral ghosts
• Fallen angels cast out of heaven with Lucifer, sentenced by God to the elements of the earth, where they act as Demons
• Nature spirits who are attached to particular places or to the four elements, for example, sylphs of the air, gnomes of the earth, undines of water, and salamanders of fire
• Supernatural creatures who are shape-shifting monsters or half-human, half-monster
• Small human beings, primitive races like the Tuatha de Danaan that went into hiding in order to survive In more recent times, fairies have been compared to extraterrestrials.
Descriptions and Characteristics
Fairies usually are invisible save to those with clairvoyant sight. They are best seen at dusk. In lore, they do not like to be seen by people and will often punish people who see them accidentally, including striking them blind. If they choose to be visible, fairies can bestow the gift of clairvoyance (and healing) upon mortals. Descriptions of fairies cover a wide range, from tiny lights to winged creatures and, most often, small people. They tend to be either ugly—even monstrous—or beautiful. They are shape shifters who can assume whatever form they wish, especially to deceive or manipulate people. In Ireland, fairies assume the forms of black birds, especially crows; in French fairy lore, they are sometimes magpies. Black birds, as well as black animals, are associated with Demons and the Devil.
Some fairies are solitary, like leprechauns, while others live in races and nations. Their homes are often in the earth and are accessed through mounds, caves, burrows, and holes in the ground and under piles of stones and rocks. It is bad luck to disturb these places, and the fairies will take revenge on people who do, causing misfortune, illness, and even death.
The Land of Fairy, also called Elfland, has characteristics of the land of the dead. Time is altered, so that a day in human life might stretch into years in fairyland. There is no day or night but a perpetual twilight. In legend and lore, there is an intermingling of ghosts of the dead and the afterlife with fairies and the Land of Fairy.
Descriptions of European fairies have been collected from oral lore. Robert Kirk, a Scottish Episcopalian minister who was clairvoyant, visited Fairyland and wrote an account, The Secret Commonwealth, in 1691–92, still one of the major first-person accounts in existence. A major compendium of fairy lore was written by W. Y. EvansWentz in the early 20th century, The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries (1911).
Fairies live much as humans do, working and maintaining families and amusing themselves with food, drink, music, and dancing. They travel in the physical world along paths, tracks, and raths, which, as with their homes, must never be disturbed or destroyed by humans. Some of them like to march in processions at night and especially at the “cross quarter” days of the seasons. If someone builds a house atop a fairy track, the fairies will pass right through it, and the occupants will sicken, their crops will fail, and their animals will die. The fairies act as poltergeists, opening closed windows and doors and creating disturbances similarly to haunting ghosts. Fairies are similar to Demons in that many of them do not care for humans, and sometimes they will deliberately fool and attack people. A strong trickster element runs through fairy lore. They are fond of leading travelers astray. They attend human wakes and funerals and eat the banquet food, spoiling it for people.
Fairies kidnap people to their abodes, especially beautiful women they take for wives. In Fairyland, a person who eats their food remains trapped in a netherworld. To be “taken” by fairies means to go to the otherworld, also the land of the dead. If an abduction is temporary, a person sickens and then recovers; if it is permanent, the person dies and stays in the otherworld. Eating fairy food is taboo, for it will alter the body and prevent a person from returning to the world of the living.
Not all fairies are hostile or are tricksters. Some are kind and helpful to people, though on conditions. For example, the household brownies will help with chores, as long as occupants are respectful; leave out milk, cream, and food for them; and are not messy. Once food is left for fairies, it must not be eaten by man or beast, for the fairies take the essence of the food, and it is no longer fit for others to consume. If food falls on the floor, the fairies claim it, and it must be given to them.
Fairies have a major weakness: IRON, which repels them and dilutes their supernatural powers. Amulets made of iron keep fairies away.
Bewitchment and Witchcraft
As do witches, fairies have the magical ability to bewitch people and animals and to blight crops and health. In Irish lore, the Tuatha de Danaan took revenge upon the Mil by blighting wheat crops and spoiling milk. When Christian elements entered fairy lore, it became custoMary to dip a thumb in fresh milk and make the sign of the cross to ward off fairies.
If a person insults or displeases fairies, they have the power to transform him into a beast, a stone, or something else in nature.
Bewitched and fairy-possessed people and animals, who act strangely, sicken, or fall into trances or even seizures, are called “fairy struck” and “elf shot.” The latter term refers to invisible arrows shot into people and animals.
Fairies teach witches their magical lore and casting of spells.
Fairies are well known for stealing human babies and substituting their own ugly babies in their place. The taking happens at night when a child is asleep or when it is napping unattended.
Evans-Wentz gives the following quoted oral account from France, about a woman and her three children, as an example:
When she had her first child, a very strong and very pretty boy, she noticed one morning that he had been changed during the night; there was no longer the fine baby that she had put to bed in the evening; there was, instead, an infant hideous to look at, greatly deformed, hunchbacked, and crooked, and of a black color. The poor woman knew that a fee [fairy] had changed her child.
This changed infant still lives, and today he is about seventy years old. He has all the possible vices; and he has tried many times to kill his mother. He is a veritable Demon; he predicts the future, and has a habit of running abroad at night. They call him the “Little Corrigan” [a type of fairy], and everybody flees from him. Being poor and infirm now, he is obliged to beg, and people give him alms because they have a great fear of him. His nickname is Olier.
The woman had two other children, who also were said to be normal at birth but were stolen by the fairies and also became “Demonic” hunchbacks. Then she was advised by a wise woman to put a sprig of boxwood blessed by a priest in the cradle, and the fairies would be repelled. She did so for her fourth child, and it was not affected.
The idea of changelings might have explained problems in infants that were not apparent at birth but developed later and even “crib death” or sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). The affected infants were not unrecognizable or completely different, but they were changed for the worse in noticeable ways.
Possession and Exorcism
Changelings result from possession: An entity steals a soul during sleep. The changelings were thus “fairy-possessed.” As the preceding account shows, a changeling had “Demonic” characteristics much as a person possessed by a Demon does: an altered personality, evil tendencies and acts, supernormal abilities (prophecy), and an altered physical appearance. The hunchback is even called “a veritable Demon.”
In the case of changelings, the possession was usually permanent. Exorcism remedies exist in fairy lore; how effective they were probably depended on the nature of the problem affecting the infant. One remedy in French lore, for example, was to leave a changeling outdoors. The fairies would hear it cry and take it back, leaving the true child in its rightful place.
Fairies were well known for bewitching milk, and exorcisms of milk once were common in folklore practices. The vessel for containing the milk was exorcized and blessed, and so was the milk poured into it. Demons as well as fairies possessed milk; sometimes little or no distinction was made between one and the other. The biography of the Irish patron saint Columba, who lived in the sixth century, tells a story about the saint’s exorcism of milk. The Vita Columbae was written by Adamnan, the abbot of Iona. One day a youth named Columban did the milking and took the pail to St. Columba for exorcism. The saint made the sign of the cross in the air, but the lid flew off and most of the milk spilled. Columba said, “Thou has done carelessly in thy work today; for thou has not cast out the Demon that was lurking in the bottom of the empty pail, by tracing on it, before pouring in the milk, the sign of the Lord’s cross; and now not enduring, thou seest, the virtue of the sign, he has quickly fled away in terror, while at the same time the whole of the vessel has been violently shaken, and the milk spilled.” Columba then ordered a half-full pail to be carried to him for exorcism. When he blessed it, the pail miraculously filled with milk.
One old folk custom in Brittany, France, called for the burning of green branches on the summer solstice. Domestic farm animals were passed through the smoke, which exorcized all evil spirits and fairies and protected them from bewitchment and possession. In the case of cows, it especially guaranteed the abundant supply of milk.
Fairies in Contemporary Lore
Since Victorian times, fairies have been increasingly stripped of their formidable powers and trivialized as little beings with wings, or female ballerinalike figures with wands. The fictitious Tinkerbell, created by the Scottish novelist J. M. Barrie around the turn of the 20th century as part of the Peter Pan stories, also added to the degrading of fairies to inconsequential, little creatures. The continuing portrayal of fairies in popular media is of cute, magical little beings with no Demonic associations. The “tooth fairy” who leaves money in exchange for teeth left underneath a pillow is still popular with small children.
– Briggs, Katherine. The Vanishing People. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.
– Evans-Wentz, W. Y. The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries. 1911.
– Reprint, New York: Carroll, 1990.
– Stewart, R. J. The Living World of Faery. Lake Toxaway, N.C.: Mercury, 1995.