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 travellers 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 colour. 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.
Fairies are magically empowered beings who occupy a middle realm between Earth and the heavenly planes. The term fairy comes from the Latin word fata, or fate, which refers to the Fates of mythology: three women who spin, twist and cut the threads of life. Fairy came into usage in medieval times and was often used to refer to women who had magical powers. Fairy originally meant faerie, or a state of ENCHANTMENT. According to lore, fairies themselves do not like the word but prefer such labels as the Good Neighbours, the Gentry, the People of Peace, the Strangers, Themselves, The Seely (Blessed) Court and similar terms. Fairies are often referred to as “the Little People.”
Origins of Fairies
Fairy beliefs are universal and, despite their variations, are strikingly similar. While their lore can be found around the world, fairy beliefs are particularly strong in the British Isles and in Europe. Fairy lore is older than Christianity, but much of it has acquired Christian elements.
The major explanations for the origins of fairies are:
• They are the souls of the pagan dead. Those who were not baptized Christian became at death trapped between heaven and Earth.
• They are the guardians of the dead. Their realm is a between-place between the realm of the living and the realm of the dead.
• They are themselves the ghosts of venerated ancestors.
• They are fallen angels who were cast out of heaven with Lucifer but condemned by God to remain in the elements of the Earth.
• They are nature spirits who are attached to particular places or to the four elements.
• They are supernatural creatures who are monsters or half-human, half-monster.
• They are small-stature human beings, a primitive race that went into hiding to survive.
In all likelihood, there is no one origin or explanation of fairies. Some may be nature spirit s or elementals, others belong to the realm of supernatural forces, others are associated with the land of the dead, and still others have a distant relationship to humans.
Contemporary popular Western beliefs about angels link fairies to angels as a subordinate class of beings, in accordance with the idea of ministering angels—everything in nature has its guiding, or ministering, angel. In folklore tradition, however, fairies are not a type of heavenly angel but a separate class of beings that exist between the human realm and the realm of spirits. They are more closely tied to and associated with the concerns of Earth than are angels, demigods, and gods.
Fairies also have been compared with sightings of extraterrestrials; many descriptions of the latter are similar to older descriptions of fairies. UFO researcher Jacques Vallee has made compelling comparisons between ETs and fairies and elves and Demons and emphasizes the similarity between ETs and the fairy-faith Celtic folklore.
Supporters of this view argue that ETs are a modern way of explaining encounters with certain types of otherworldly beings. Opponents say that the lack of modern fairy traditions, especially in the United States, causes many experiencers to explain beings as ETs instead of fairies.
Descriptions of Fairies
Fairies have many names and descriptions. They usually are invisible save to those with clairvoyant sight. Fairies are elusive, and many prefer to keep to themselves. They can make themselves visible to humans if they so desire. They are best seen at twilight.
Some fairies are diminutive, even tiny, while others are huge, larger than humans. Some are beautiful, and some are ugly. Some resemble humans, while others are spiritlike, with wings. William Butler Yeats said of fairies, “Do not think the fairies are always little. Everything is capricious about them, even their size. They seem to take what size or shape pleases them.”
Traditionally, fairies are feared more than courted. They are supernaturally endowed and can do magic, and for that reason people throughout the ages have sought their help and favours despite the dangers of dealing with them.
Some fairies are morally ambivalent, while others are always benevolent, and still others are believed to be always malevolent, such as those that guard places in nature or who like to trick the unwary traveller.
Some fairies are solitary, especially those that inhabit the wild. Others live as a fairy race or nation, usually said to be underground and accessed through mounds, caves, burrows, holes in the ground, and under piles of stones and rocks. 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.
The subjective nature of perception of fairies is amply illustrated in the variety of anecdotal accounts recorded for centuries. For example, in 1556 a Dorset, England, man accused of witchcraft, John Walsh, said that fairies were divided into three types: white, green, and black. They could be contacted between the hours of 12 and 1 day and night, but great care had to be taken with the black fairies, for they were “the worst.”
More than a century later, a detailed description of fairies and their realm was written in 1691–92 by Robert Kirk, a Scottish Episcopalian minister who lived near Stirling in the Aberfoyle region. Kirk, a seventh son, may have inherited the gifts of second sight (clairvoyance) and healing from his mother. Kirk’s handwritten manuscript, The Secret Commonwealth, still ranks as one of the most significant documents of personal knowledge of fairies. According to lore, Kirk’s relationship with fairies was so strong that he did not die physically but passed directly into the fairy realm through a hill at Aberfoyle now named after him. He remains in fairyland and will help humans who seek him out.
According to Kirk, fairies are real and intelligent beings with supernatural powers. He described some fairies as having light, changeable bodies of congealed air or condensed clouds, while others have grosser bodies and feed on corn, liquor, and grain. Their clothing and manner of speech follow the customs of the land in which they live.
W. Y. Evans-Wentz, who collected anecdotal accounts of fairies and fairy lore in the 19th and early 20th centuries, recorded many descriptions of them given by eyewitnesses. This one of “the gentry” came from a man who had contact with them:
The folk are the grandest I have ever seen. They are far superior to us, and that is why they are called the gentry. They are not a working class, but a military–aristocratic class, tall and noble-appearing. They are a distinct race between our own and that of spirits, as they have told me. Their qualifications are tremendous. “We could cut off half the human race but would not,” they said, “for we are expecting salvation.”. . . Their sight is so penetrating that I think they could see through the earth. They have a silvery voice, quick and sweet. The music they play is most beautiful. They take the whole body and soul of young and intellectual people who are interesting, transmuting the body to a body like their own. I asked them once if they ever died, and they said, “No; we are always kept young.” Once they take you and you taste the food in their palace you cannot come back. You are changed to one of them, and live with them for ever. They are able to appear in different forms. Once one appeared to me, and seemed only four feet high, and stoutly built. He said, “I am bigger than I appear to you now. We can make the old young, the big small, the small big. . . . Besides the gentry, who are a distinct class, there are bad spirits and ghosts, which are nothing like them. My mother once saw a leprechaun beside a bush hammering. He disappeared before she could get to him, but he also was unlike one of the gentry.
Another description of fairies given to Evans-Wentz came from “a cultured Irish woman” who had frequent visions of fairies and had divided them into five classes:
(1) There are the Gnomes, who are earth–spirits and who seem to be of a sorrowful race. I once saw them distinctly on the side of Ben Bulbin. They had rather round heads and dark thick-set bodies, and in stature were about two and one-half feet.
(2) The Leprechauns are different, being full of mischief, though they, too, are small. I followed a leprechaun from the town of Wiclow out to the Carraig Sidhe, “Rock of the Fairies,” a distance of a half a mile or more, where he disappeared. He had a very merry face, and beckoned to me with his finger.
(3) A third class are the Little People, who, unlike the Gnomes and Leprechauns, are quite good-looking; and they are very small.
(4) The Good People are tall beautiful beings, as tall as ourselves, to judge by those I saw at the rath in Rosses Point.
(5) The Gods are really the Tuatha de Danaan, and 98 fairies they are much taller than our race. There may be many other classes of invisible beings which I do not know.
Modern concepts of fairies divide them into four main groups aligned with the four elements of nature: Earth fairies are associated with gardens, woodlands, nature, flora, animals, minerals, places in nature, mines, caves, and so on.
Earth fairies also include those who work in human households, such as brownies. Dwarfs, gnomes, elves, pixies, trolls, and knockers are Earth-oriented fairies. Water fairies inhabit lakes, rivers, ponds, and other bodies of water, including seas and oceans. Sprites, nymphs, selkies, and mermaids are among the many kinds of water fairies. Air fairies, often called sylphs, govern the winds, the clouds, and the weather. They are especially associated with storms and tempests. Fire fairies live in wildfires, volcanoes, bonfires, the fires of the home hearth, and electricity.
Activities of Fairies
Kirk said that the fairy realm is the MIRROR opposite of the human world. Fairies are organized into tribes and orders and live as humans do: They marry, have children, work, and so forth. The fairy world is underground, where the spirits of the dead also reside. Fairies take care of and guard the world of nature. The interactions of fairies with humans depend upon the kind of fairy and its purpose. For example, a fairy of a river will not have as much interaction with humans as a fairy who looks after human tools.
It is bad luck to disturb a known fairy dwelling or any place where fairies might live, such as under piles of stone. The fairies will be angry and take revenge. Fairies travel along lines or tracks called fairy paths. The fairies travel along their paths at night at all costs to humans. For example, if someone is unfortunate enough to build a house atop a fairy path, bad luck will follow, for the fairies will march right through it. The occupants will sicken, the animals will die, and the crops will not grow or will become blighted. Doors and windows, especially those right along the path, will not stay closed.
In addition to their night marches, fairies move their lodgings on the Quarter Days, the times of the equinoxes and solstices. They are restless folk and move constantly “until doomsday,” according to Kirk. During these mass relocations, people who possess second sight can have terrifying encounters with them. Tradition holds that it is advisable not to travel on those days, and to attend church to pray for protection against fairy attacks.
Traditionally, the existence and activities of fairies explain the reasons for illnesses, deformities, and untimely deaths among children; epidemics among livestock, and various disasters of weather. Fairies cause sudden, mysterious and sometimes fatal illnesses in animals and people by attacking with elf arrows, soft flint barbed arrowheads that are flung with great force like darts. Elf arrows have the ability to penetrate deep into bodies and mortally wound vital organs without ever breaking the skin. Cattle are said to be particularly vulnerable to being “elf-shot.”
They control crops; problems with harvests are blamed upon them. On All Hallows Eve, fairies blight blackberries and sloes; eating them on this night results in serious illness.
Fairies like to lead travellers astray. In Cornwall, where fairies are called piskeys, a person is said to be “piskeyled” if he or she becomes confused, disoriented, and lost. Fairies bewitch both animals and people.
Fairies steal human women for wives. They steal human babies and substitute their own sickly children, or changelings, in their place. Fairy women like to spin.
Fairies especially love to dance at night, forming circle dances that leave marks in grass or rings of mushrooms called fairy rings. The grass beneath them withers and is called a briza or dawdle. If a person walks across one of these dance rings, he is likely to become drowsy and fall into a permanent sleep. Offerings of cheese left in fairy rings will gain the favours of fairies.
Another favoured activity of fairies is to eat food at human funeral banquets. Men who have second sight can see these dining fairies; hence they refuse to touch the meat served, lest they be poisoned by the fairies. Fairies bestow the gift of prophecy and second sight upon certain individuals—usually men according to folklore tradition—and use their own powers to convey information about the future through these seers. Fairies possess their own books of magical charms and countercharms and teach witches magical arts of bewitchment and spell-casting.
To stay in the good graces of fairies, humans should keep clean houses and leave out food and drink. In return, fairies will bestow gifts, luck, fertility, and money and will help humans with their chores. Fairies also are given offerings at sacred wells, fountains, lakes, tree groves, and other places said to be “fairy haunts” so that humans can ward off illness and misfortune.
Iron weakens and repels fairies. Thus, iron implements should not be left in places frequented by fairies. Iron weapons can be used successfully against them.
The folk concept of benign or malignant fairies is often ambiguous. Whatever the disposition of a particular fairy or group of fairies, human respect for them is essential. Many folk tales illustrate the desirability of kindness, politeness, observance of taboos, and correct etiquette in dealing with the fairies.
Fairies are fond of kidnapping people and carting them off to Elfland. They kidnap people who displease them and people who deliberately or accidentally manage to see them. Sometimes they take people just because it is in their nature to do so. A victim may remain in fairyland an hour or two, a day, or if longer, in years in multiples of seven: seven years, 14 years, 21 years, and so on. Those who are released by the fairies—or who manage to escape—often have no recollection of their time spent in fairyland. People who go into trancelike states are said to be off in fairyland enjoying a festival.
One of the oldest oral accounts of about being taken away by a fairy is The Ballad of Thomas Rhymer, which dates to 13th-century Scotland. Thomas Rhymer (Thomas of Erceldoune or Earlston) was sleeping under a tree on a grassy bank when the queen of Fair Elfland came riding up on a milk-white horse. At first Rhymer thought she was the queen of heaven, but she corrected him with her true identity. She ordered him to come with her and to serve her for seven years “through good or ill as chance may be.” Rhymer obeyed and got on the horse behind her. The steed took off faster than the wind. For 40 days and nights they rode, going through knee-deep blood, seeing neither sun nor moon. Rhymer could only hear the sound of roaring sea. Eventually, they came to a garden tree, and Rhymer offered to pick some fruit for the fairy queen. She warned him not to touch it, “for all the plagues that are in hell are upon the fruit of this country.” Instead, she produced bread and wine in her lap. After Rhymer ate, the fairy queen told him to lay his head on her knee. She showed him three roads: the road to wickedness, which looked inviting; the road to righteousness, which was narrow and full of thorns; and the road to Elfland, which was beautiful. The queen warned Rhymer that once they got to Elfland, he was not to speak a single word, or he would never return to his own land. Rhymer obeyed, and vanished for seven years. When he returned, he had the gift of prophecy and also was given green velvet shoes and a woven cloth coat.
The place where Rhymer met the queen of fairies is in the Eildon Hills in the Borders of Scotland. The Rhymer’s Stone, on the old road between Melrose and St. Boswells, marks the spot where the Trysting Tree, also called the Eildon Tree, originally stood. The tree is where Rhymer was sleeping when he was summoned by the fairy queen and is where he made his prophecies after returning from his stay in Efl and. The stone is modern and replaces an original stone, the historical details of which are not known.
Magical Work with Fairies
In earlier times, people usually avoided fairies and sought not to draw their attention and certainly not their ire. However, their magical abilities of healing, protection, and prophecy enticed some persons to seek them out. A 15thcentury English manuscript prescribed a magical way to summon fairies at will with the help of a crystal, hen’s blood, hazel wands, and other ingredients:
First get a broad square christall or Venus glasse, in length and breadth three inches; then lay that glasse or chrystall in the blood of a white Heene, three Wednesdays or three Fridays, then take it out and wash it with Holy Water and fumigate it [with incense]. Then take three hazels sticks or wands of a years growth, peel them fayre and white and make them so long as you write the spirits or fayries which you call three times on every sticke, being made fl att on one side. Then bury them under som hill, wheras you suppose fayries haunt, the Wednesday before you call her, and the Friday following, take them up and call her at 8, 3, and 10 of the clocke which he good planets and hours, but when you call, be of cleane life and turn thy face towards the east, and when you have her, bind her to the stone or glasse.
In modern times, attitudes have shifted toward seeking out fairies for communication and magical and spiritual work. Wiccan and Pagan interests often use the spelling faery to distinguish modern magical work from old fairy folklore.
Magical work with fairies includes communing with them via meditation, clairvoyance, telepathy, and work with dreams and magical rituals, as well as shamanic journeys to the fairyland Underworld. The purposes of magical work include spiritual growth and enlightenment; service to Nature; healing; and spell-casting. A fairy altar (see tools) may be constructed in a home or garden as a place to focus fairy magic work.
- Briggs, Katherine Briggs. The Vanishing People. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.
- ———. An Encyclopedia of Fairies: Hobgoblins – Brownies – Bogies and Other Supernatural Creatures. New York: Pantheon Books, 1976.
- Evans-Wentz, W. Y. The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries. 1911. Reprint, New York: Carroll Publishing Group, 1990.
- Guiley, Rosemary. Fairy Magic. London: Element/Thorsons, 2004.
- Stewart, R. J. The Living World of Faery. Lake Toxaway, N.C.: Mercury Publishing, 1995.
- Vallee, Jacques. Passport to Magonia: From Folklore to Flying Saucers. Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1969.
A host of supernatural beings and spirits who exist between earth and heaven. Both good and evil, fairies have been associated with witches. During the witch hunts in Europe and the British Isles, accused witches often sought to save their lives by claiming they were taught their witch arts by fairies, which seemed less malevolent than if they had been taught by the Devil. For the most part, fairies have remained in a category of their own, though when convenient, the clergy allied them with the Devil.
Belief in fairies is universal and ancient and is especially strong in Europe and the British Isles. Fairies come in all shapes and sizes and are known by scores of names, among them in Western lore brownie, elf, dwarf, troll, gnome, pooka, kobold, leprechaun and banshee. In the colonization of America, fairy beliefs were transported across the Atlantic, where they survived in the Appalachians, the Ozarks and other remote mountainous areas.
The word fairy comes from the Latin term, fata, or “fate.” The Fates were supernatural women who liked to visit newborn children. The archaic English term for fairy is fay, which means enchanted or bewitched; the state of enchantment is fayerie, which gradually became jaerie and fairy.
There are four principal proposed origins of fairies:
1. Fairies are the souls of the pagan dead. Being unbaptized, the shades, or souls, are caught in a nether-world and are not bad enough to descend into hell nor good enough to rise into heaven.
2. Fairies are fallen angels. When God cast Lucifer from heaven, the angels who were loyal to Lucifer plunged down toward hell with him. But God raised his hand and stopped them in midflight, condemning them to remain where they were. Some were in the air, some in the earth and some in the seas and rivers. This belief is widespread in the lore of Ireland, Scotland and Scandinavia.
3. Fairies are nature spirits. Fairies are among the many spirits that populate all things and places on the planet. (See nature spirits.)
4. Fairies are diminutive human beings. Evidence exists that small-statured races populated parts of Europe and the British Isles in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, before the spread of the Celts. In Ireland a mythical race called the Tuatha de Danaan lived in barrows and in shelters burrowed under hills and mounds. They were shy and hard-working, and, as stronger races invaded and conquered with their iron weapons, they retreated into the woodlands to live secretive lives. They were pagan and continued to worship pagan deities. They were close to nature and had keen psychic senses. Some were skilled in metals and mining, and some were herdsmen, keeping stocks of diminutive cattle and horses. Some maintained a guerilla warfare against invaders. The legends of Robin Hood and Rob Roy may be related to fairy lore.
The elusive fairy races were regarded with suspicion and superstition by the larger races and gradually became endowed in popular belief with magical attributes and characteristics. These races, such as the Tapps, Picts and Romano-British-Iberian peoples, were not so small as to be unable to mingle with the Celts, Normans and Sax- ons. Many were made into servants and serfs, while some married and mixed bloodlines. Prior to the 13th century, having fairy blood was admired.
Of the four main ideas, the latter two may be most likely: the small races became identified as fairies and were ascribed the supernatural abilities and characteristics of nature spirits in lore.
Physical characteristics of fairies vary. Some are tiny, winged, gossamer creatures a few inches tall who can alight on a drop of water and barely make it tremble. Some are dwarfs and “little people” barely smaller than mortals. Others are giants. Fairies are both ugly and beautiful. They are usually mischievous and unpredictable and must be placated by gifts of food and spotlessly clean houses. The superstitious refer to them as “the good people” or “the good neighbours” in order to stay in the fairies’ good graces.
When won over by a mortal, fairies may be very generous with gifts, either material or psychic such as clairvoyance or the ability to heal. Some are evil and malevolent. Many are lascivious and enjoy seducing mortals; some even marry mortals. In general, it is considered bad luck to talk about fairies and their activities. To do so invites a beating from them and the instantaneous disappearance of all the gifts bestowed by the fairies, such as wealth and possessions, and even the fairy lovers or spouses themselves.
Fairies are nocturnal creatures and like to drink, dance and sing. Their music is exquisite. Their colour is green, which is also identified with witches. Green clothing perhaps helps them to blend into their forests; some are said to have green skin. They keep many animals, including dogs, cattle and sheep, which usually are red and white in colour, but they do not keep cats or fowl. In Irish folklore, cats are regarded as fairies, generally as evil ones. The crowing of COCKS drives away fairies, as well as witches and Demons.
Like the Fates, fairies love to visit the newborn babies of mortals and will not hesitate to steal those that are unbaptized, or “little pagans,” substituting in their place changelings — wizened fairy children. Fairies particularly desire fair-haired children, to improve their own hairy stock. To protect infants against kidnapping by fairies, an open pair of IRON scissors traditionally was hung over them in the cradle — for iron is believed to repel fairies — or an iron pin was stuck in their clothes. Other measures included laying the trousers of the child’s father across the cradle; drawing a circle of fire around the cradle; making a sign of the cross over the child; sprinkling it and the cradle with holy water; and giving it a nickname. The latter relates to beliefs in the magic power of names (see names OF power). If fairies do not know the true name of a child, they will not be able to cast a magical spell over it. In lore, witches were said to collude with fairies to steal babies or children for money, infants who were ugly, retarded or unruly were written off as changelings. It was believed that the changelings could be induced to confess if they were set afire, and many babies may have died that way.
In the early Middle Ages, fairies were said to be visible to all. As time went on, they acquired more and more supernatural powers and became invisible to all but those with second sight. Fairies who were captured by mortals were said to pine away and die quickly if they could not escape. Mortals who visited Fairyland, an enchanted land beneath the ground, discovered that time passes very slowly for fairies: what seemed like a few days translated into years when the mortals returned to the physical world.
Some fairies were said to suck human blood like vampires. On the Isle of Man, it was believed that if water was not left out for them, they would suck the blood of the sleepers in the house or bleed them and make a cake with the blood. The fairies would then leave some of the blood cake hidden in the house; it had to be found and given to the sleepers to eat, or they would die of a sleeping sickness. (See Horned Women for a description of blood cakes attributed to witches.)
Fairies and witches.
According to British anthropologist Margaret A. Murray and others, real “little people” gradually became identified with witches. In the 16th and 17th centuries, when fairy beliefs were at their height, fairies and witches were often blended together. Both could cast and break spells, heal people and divine lost objects and the future. Both danced and sang beneath a full moon — often together — and trafficked with the Devil. Both could change shape, fly, levitate and cause others to levitate (see metamorphosis; flying; Levitation). Both stole unbaptized children and poisoned people. Both stole horses at night and rode them hard to their Sabbats, returning them exhausted by dawn. Both avoided Salt and both were repelled by iron. James I of England, in Daemonologie, his book about witches, called Diana, the goddess of witches, the “Queen of Faerie.” Oberon, the name of the King of Fairies, was also the name of a Demon summoned by magicians. Fairies were said to be the familiars of witches. It is no surprise, then, that fairies figured in numerous witch trials. Those richest in detail took place in the British Isles.
In 1566 John Walsh of Dorset was accused of witchcraft. He admitted being able to tell if a person was bewitched, a gift bestowed upon him partly by fairies, he said. The fairies, he claimed, lived in great heaps of earth in Dorset- shire and could be consulted for one hour, at either noon or midnight. Walsh also defined three kinds of fairies: green, white and black, and said the black were the worst.
Bessy Dunlop, a wise woman healer of Ayrshire, was accused of witchcraft and sorcery on November 8, 1576, She suddenly became a successful herbalist and healer and gained second sight, which helped her predict the recovery or death of patients and the location of lost objects.
In her trial, Dunlop testified that she had been taught these abilities by a phantom fairy named Thorne or Thome Reid. Reid told her that he had been ordered to be her attendant by the Queen of Elfhane. Many years before, when Dunlop was in childbirth, the Queen appeared before her as a stout woman, asked for a drink and was given one. Reid explained to Dunlop that afterwards, he had been killed in the battle of Pinkie on September 10, 1547, and had gone to Fairyland. He now served the Queen of Elfhane.
The ghostly Reid appeared many times before Dun- lop, beseeching her to go away with him to Fairyland or to deny the Christian faith, in exchange for which he would grant her every wish. She denied him repeatedly, she testified. One day, Reid appeared with a company of eight women and four men. Reid explained that they were “good wights” (fairies) who lived in Elfland. They asked Dunlop to accompany them. When Dunlop remained silent, they left “with a hideous ugly howling sound, like that of a hurricane.”
Reid continued to visit Dunlop, offering his assistance in healing sick animals and people. Eventually, he gave her herbal ointments and taught her how to use them and predict their effectiveness.
Dunlop would see Reid in town from time to time, though he remained invisible to others. He always appeared if she summoned him thrice. On every occasion, he begged her to come with him to Fairyland, sometimes tugging at her apron, but she always refused, which some- times put him in an ill humour.
These supernatural visits went on for four years before Dunlop was brought down on charges of witchcraft. The fact that Dunlop had always used her new skills for good did not help her case; neither did her testimony that her benefactor was a fairy and not the Devil. Dunlop was convicted and burned at the stake.
A few years later, in 1588, Alison Pearson of Byrehill was charged with invoking the spirits of the Devil. She also was said to have a fairy familiar: her cousin, William Sympson, a physician who had been kidnapped by a Gypsy and had died. One day while Pearson was travelling, she felt ill and lay down. A green man (Sympson) appeared and said he would do her good if she would be faithful to him. The green man vanished and reappeared with a band of fairies, who cajoled Pearson into accompanying them and taking part in their drinking and merrymaking.
Pearson gradually became comfortable with her fairy friends. If she talked about their activities, however, she was tormented with blows that left insensitive spots on her skin. Sympson advised her of when the fairies were coming to her and of the fact that they usually arrived in a whirlwind. Sympson also taught her how to use herbal remedies and told her that every year, the Devil took one-tenth of the fairies away to hell as a tithe.
Like Dunlop, Pearson’s confession only worsened her case. She also was convicted and burned.
Isobel Gowdie, Scotland’s renowned witch who voluntarily confessed in 1662, said she had frequent doings with fairies. Gowdie went often to Fairyland, entering through various caverns and mounds. The entrance of Fairyland was populated with elf-bulls, whose “roaring and skoilling” always frightened her. She often met with the King and Queen of Fairy, who were finely dressed and offered her more meat than she could eat. Gowdie, her fellow witches and the fairies would amuse themselves by metamorphosing into animals and destroying the homes of mortals.
Gowdie said the fairies manufactured their poisonous elf-arrow heads (see elf arrows) in their caverns, and she had seen the Devil working alongside them, putting the finishing touches on the flints. Fairies taught her how to fly, by mounting cornstraws and beanstalks and crying, “Horse and Hattock, in the Devil’s name!”
As late as 1894 beliefs in fairies and witches in Ireland caused the murder of Bridget Cleary of Clonmel, who was accused by her own husband and family of being a changeling wife. The trials of Michael Cleary and Bridget’s relatives were Ireland’s last involving witchcraft (see Fairy Witch of Clonmel).
Many contemporary Witches believe in fairies and some see them clairvoyantly. Some Witches say their Craft was passed down from fairies through the generations of their families.
- Briggs, K. M. The Fairies in Tradition and Literature. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978.
- Briggs, Katharine. An Encyclopedia oj Fairies. New York: Pantheon, 1976.
- Evans-Wentz, W. Y. The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries. 1911. Reprint, Secaucus, N.J.: University Books, 1966.
- Scott, Sir Walter. Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft. 1884. Reprint, New York: Citadel Press, 1968.
- Yeats, W. B. Irish Fairy and Folk Tales. 1892. Reprint, New York: Dorset Press, 1986.
fairy A type of supernatural being, neither ghost, god nor demigod, which exists on earth and either helps or harms humankind. Fairy beliefs are universal and are strikingly similar. They probably arose to explain illnesses, deformities and untimely deaths among children; epidemics among livestock; and various disasters of weather. Fairies have a close connection with the dead.
Fairy beliefs are particularly strong in Celtic Europe and Britain, and especially so in Ireland. Celtic fairy lore was transplanted to the American colonies, where it settled in the Appalachians, Ozarks and other rural mountainous areas. Fairy lore abounds in Asia, but not in Africa. Native Americans have their own fairy lore; the Crow, for example, refer to the “Little People” who live in the Pryor Mountains of south-central Montana. The Little People possess powerful medicine for healing, war and horse theft, and are incredibly strong with canine teeth.
The term “fairy” comes from the Latin fata, or fate, which refers to the Fates of mythology, three women who spin, twist and cut the threads of life. Fairies were known as fays in archaic English, a term which means “enchanted” or “bewitched.” Fairies are said to possess magical powers and the ability to cast spells; they are sometimes identified with witches or said to be their familiars, or their tutors in the magical arts.
Fairies are given various names and descriptions, but in almost all cases are diminutive, even tiny. They may be beautiful or ugly, may resemble humans, or have wings and carry wands and pipes. They usually are invisible save to those with clairvoyant sight; they can make themselves visible to humans if they so desire. Some are normally ambivalent, while others are always benevolent, and still others are always malevolent.
The origins of fairies are given in several main theories: (1) they are the souls of the pagan dead, caught between heaven and earth because they were not baptized; (2) they are the guardians of the dead; (3) they are the ghosts of venerated ancestors: (4) they are fallen angels, cast out of heaven with Lucifer but condemned by God to remain in the elements of the Earth; (5) they Revenge of the fairies, drawn by George Cruikshank. 164 fairy are nature spirits who are attached to particular places or elements; and (6) they are small-statured human beings. In various cultures, fairies fall into more than one of these categories.
In Irish mythology, the fairies are the Tuatha de Danaan, the divine race who are children of the goddess Danu. The Tuatha De, or “people of the goddess,” as they are called, came over the sea from the east in clouds and mist in the 15th century B.C.E. They were strong and beautiful people, skilled in the magical arts. After taking control of Ireland, they retired into the hills and mounds (side or sidhe) and became underground dwellers who evolved into fairies. In some myths, Tuatha De also remained above ground, where they were renowned for their warrior skills, beauty, wizardry and magic. They were part mortal, part spirit and part god, and they intermarried with humans.
Medieval romances portrayed human characters as fairies; up to the 13th century, having fairy blood was considered desirable. It is possible that these medieval fairies were descendants of small races, such as the Lapps, Picts and Romano-British-Iberian peoples, who populated Britain, Europe and Scandinavia in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages and were pushed out by larger races such as the Celts. As they retreated more and more into the woodlands, successor races increasingly associated them with superstition. Some of the little people were pressed into servitude, while others married into larger races.
Where fairy lore exists, it is believed that at least some of them live as a fairy race or nation; the Land of Fairy, also called Elfland, has characteristics of the land of the dead: it exists underground and is accessed through barrows and mounds; time ceases there. The fairies customarily come out at night, when they dance, sing, travel about, make merry and make mischief. They are believed to steal human women away for wives, and to steal unprotected human children and leave their own in place (changelings). In order to stay in the good graces of “the little people,” “the good people” and “the good neighbours,” as they are called, humans are to keep clean houses and leave out food and drink. In return, fairies bestow gifts and money and help humans with their chores.
Fairies also are traditionally propitiated with offerings and rites at sacred wells, fountains, lakes and tree groves so that humans may ward off illness and misfortune. Samhain, the Celtic pagan festival of the dead, November 1, includes recognition of fairies (see All Hallow’s Eve). Such rites and observances were absorbed into Christianity: saints assumed the roles of gods, spirits and fairies, and All Saints’ Day, the festival of saints and martyrs known and unknown, replaced the festival of the dead.
In Celtic lore, ancient burial sites such as tumuli, dolmens, menhirs and megaliths are haunted by fairies and other beings. It is the fairies’ custom, according to lore, to come out and dance circular dances at these sites on moonlit nights. Stories of sightings of such revelries continue into modern times. Many contemporary Witches, Wiccans, and Pagans establish contact with the fairy (also faery) realms as part of their spiritual practice and magical work.
- Briggs, Katherine. An Encyclopedia of Fairies: Hobgoblins – Brownies – Bogies and Other Supernatural Creatures. New York: Pantheon Books, 1976.
- Briggs, Katherine. The Vanishing People. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.
- Evans-Wentz, W. Y. The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries. New York: Carroll Publishing Group, 1990. First published 1911.
- Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft. New York: Facts On File, 1999.
- Murray, Earl. Ghosts of the Old West: Desert Spirits, Haunted Cabins, Lost Trails, and Other Strange Encounters. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1988.
The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits– Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley – September 1, 2007
The word Fairy has become a catch-all for all kinds of tenuously related spirits. In general, what they share in common are associations with wild nature and an interest in human life cycles, especially birth. Fairy is also the standard word used to translate amorphous, volatile, sexy nature spirits from around the world, especially if they’re female. Thus Vila, Rusalka, Keshalyi, and Tündér are all referred to as Fairies although they are all distinct types of spirits.
The word Fairy is related to fate. Birth Fairies—those spirits who arrive shortly after a birth to announce a baby’s future and fortune—may be the “true” Fairies. This is more obvious in Italian than in English: the word for Fairy in Italian is fata or fada. Fata Morgana is literally Fairy Morgana. (SEE ALSO: Fairy, Birth; Fata Morgana.)
For many people, Fairy means the Sidhe of Ireland and the Scottish Highlands. The word is commonly used in Ireland as the English translation for Sidhe. When people describe green as a Fairy colour, for instance, they are referring to the preferences of the Sidhe. (Balkan and Slavic “Fairies” tend to prefer white.)
• Shamanic healers and herbalists who work with Sidhe are known as Fairy doctors.
• The old shamanic tradition of venerating and working with Sidhe is the Fairy Faith.
ALSO KNOWN AS:
Faerie; Fee; Fay; Fae; Fada; Fata; Hada; Draga; Encantada; Damizelos
Frogs, toads, dragonflies, butterflies, horses, cattle, deer, and foxes are among the creatures most identified with Fairies.
Wildflowers in general
Plants Traditionally Associated with Fairies
• Blackthorn (sloe)
• Briar roses and dog roses
• Crocuses, especially saffron
• Morning glories
• Mushrooms, especially amanita muscaria
• Primrose (Allegedly primroses serve as keys to Fairy Land.)
• Ragweed (a.k.a., Fairy’s Horse)
Fairies favour nocturnal hours and threshold times, for instance, twilight and dawn.
Fairies are particularly active from May Eve (Beltane, Walpurgis) until a last annual fling at Halloween.
- Fairy, Birth
- Fairy, Flower
- Fairy, Green
- Fairy Queens
- Ho Hsien-Ko
- Huli Jing
- Ma Gu
- Ma Zu
Allegedly, if you stand beneath an elder tree on Midsummer’s Eve, you will be granted a vision of reveling Fairies.
Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses– Written by Judika Illes Copyright © 2009 by Judika Illes.