The following article is based on a talk entitled Faeries Yesterday and Today that Silverspear gave to Pagan Pathways in April, 2016.
Most people today when hearing the term Faery tend to conjure up images of tiny creatures with wings flitting from one flower to another; something like a cross between a bee and a hummingbird. Faery wings were certainly common in Victorian artwork, but very rare in folklore, and even very small fairies were said to fly using magic, sometimes soaring through the air on ragwort stems, for example.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, drawing from his Theosophical background, tried to appeal to the scientific reasoning of his day by suggesting that faery wings were streaming emanations of an etheric substance, as he described it. But faeries, it seems, are not subject to scientific analysis, and possibly never will be. Neither is there much justification for wings. There is, nonetheless, many theories as to what faeries are. But most theories, which will be examined as we progress through this article, conflict or at best overlap one another.
The late Katherine Briggs, the renowned folklorist, made an earnest and scholarly attempt to categorise and describe faeries and published her research in a book entitled A Dictionary of Fairies. But in the words of Jeremy Harte, another folklorist, all such attempts to study fairies in the way that one would study wildlife, for example, are basically doomed to failure, the reason being that faeries are elusive and fickle by nature. Faeries cannot be pinned down or studied.
Many modern books and websites on faeries give the impression of an exclusive insight into the realm of the fey. Like many sources that deal with paranormal issues, some have drawn information from unreliable sources. In addition to that, these self-styled experts tend to add ideas of their own, which often are fanciful, ill informed, or based on wish-fulfilment.
New Age ideas, for example, take a fairly optimistic some would say a naive approach and believe that humans can actually work with faeries to save the planet. As to whether the Fey share that view, is of course, another matter. Tolkien probably would have disagreed, pointing out that: Faerie is a perilous land; in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold. Nonetheless, what is often described nowadays as the Faery Faith continues to evolve to meet the needs of the modern world. One such example is Faery Wicca, which is an invented form of Wicca that places an emphasis on the Fey but has no connection to the Faery Faith as known in traditional Gaelic culture.
As to the etymology of the word faerie, the term remains shrouded in mystery, although various attempts have been made to explain its origin. A widely accepted view, however, is that the word faery is probably derived from the Latin term fata meaning fate, which also relates to the Fates of Greek and Roman mythology; the three sisters who spun the thread of life and determined the fate of all human life. A similar sounding word in Archaic English was fays, which meant enchanted or bewitched. In Middle English the term faerie was certainly used and seems to have come from Old French. The French word is also associated with fate, or enchantment, and was related to a type of experience rather than a class of being. At its most basic meaning, it was believed that one's fate could be determined through enchantment.
For example, imagine you are in a lonely forest late at night; a forest you know very well. Suddenly, for some inexplicable reason, you realise that you have lost your way. The chances are you will feel some fear and disorientation. If you are so inclined, you might take the view that an invisible force is leading you astray. In other words, that you are being pixie-led. In earlier times people felt very much at the mercy of unexplained forces; probably more than most people do today, although climate change and pollution are providing us with different reasons to feel threatened. To understand traditional fairy belief, therefore, we need to imagine a society very different from our own.
To earlier Celtic generations living in a predominantly rural landscape, the world just beyond the village boundary or farmstead was potentially very threatening and highly unpredictable. In Ireland, for example, it was customary not to refer directly to fairies in case one tempted fate; the use of the word fairy tended to be avoided at all costs and euphemisms were used instead, such as The Good People, The Good Neighbours, The Gentry, The Little People, The Other Folk, Themselves, and so on.
As to whether the Fey are simply metaphors for fate, or conversely, actual entities that dwell in a world quite close to our own and actually have power to control fate, is a matter of personal opinion. Those that take the view that the Fey are entities or beings say that they occupy a limbo between heaven and earth. This was the view taken by the Reverend Robert Kirk who was the minister at Aberfoyle in Scotland during the 17th century. Kirk believed that faeries are liminal beings, belonging neither to one realm nor the other, enabling them to interact on a whim with both this world and the Otherworld.
Such a paradox tends to be challenging to the Western mind conditioned by both modern science and centuries of Christian Dualism. How can something exist betwixt and between? As the well-known Scottish comedian, the late Chic Murray once put it: If something is neither here nor there, then where the hell is it?
Traditional and ancient pagan cultures, however, tended to be non-dualistic and accepted the nature of liminality. However, there are many modern pagans who have never quite succeeded in abandoning the dualism instilled into their thinking by European culture. The problem with dualism is that by its very nature it is intolerant of ambiguity; a thing must be either one thing or the other: material or spiritual, wholly benevolent, or wholly malign; black or white with no shades of grey; real or unreal. In Christian belief Good and Evil are clearly defined; there are no overlaps.
In an attempt to explain the diversity and nature of the Fey, various theories have been postulated over time:
A fairly standard view, which came out of Christian ideas and consequently strongly influenced Irish Catholicism, was that faeries are a class of Fallen Angels. After the revolt in Heaven God cast out the rebellious angels and the very bad ones ended up in Hell to become the Devil's minions. However, some angels that were neither bad enough for Hell nor equally good enough for Heaven, were caught somewhere in between and became described as fairies.
Spirits of the Dead
Another theory was that fairies were somehow connected with the dead, and this view to some extent is reflected in Celtic folklore. Many individuals, for example, claimed to have seen a person from their own village or farming community who had recently died dancing along with the faeries in a circle. Faeries were also associated with burial mounds and, like the dead, were believed to live underground. Nevertheless, in Celtic tradition ghosts and fairies were never considered to be actually one and the same, which reinforces the ambiguity of the Fey, making it more difficult to reach a clearer understanding of the issue.
Pygmy Theory (or Vanquished Tribes)
Another common theme found among the Celts describes a race of diminutive people, such as the Tuatha De Danann in Ireland, who had been driven into hiding by invading humans. Some claimed that the Tuatha De Danann came from the north, or, in other sources, from the sky. Many of the Irish tales of the Tuatha De Danann refer to these beings as fairies, though in more ancient times they were regarded as Goddesses and Gods or an actual flesh and blood race of fair people. As more aggressive races migrated into the territories of these beings, it was said that these secretive people retreated even further and further into the landscape. Finally, after being defeated in a series of battles with different Otherworldly beings and then by the human ancestors of the current Irish people, the Tuatha De Danann were said to have withdrawn to the sidhe, or fairy mounds, where they lived on in popular imagination as "fairies."
The idea that faeries have vanished from our world is sometimes described as "The Retreat", or "Recession", of the Faeries. Whether as a flesh and blood race in hiding, or as supernatural beings, the retreat of the Fey is a common theme in Celtic countries. For some rather curious reason, one generation of Celts after another seemed to take the view that the Fey retreated along with the passing of the previous generation. Changes in society or perhaps increasing industrialisation possibly encouraged this view. Perhaps even nostalgia played a role in this idea.
Edward Cowan, professor of Scottish history at the University of Glasgow, put it like this: The notion that the faeries were always slightly out of reach, slipping beyond human ken as they vanished into the mists of time, is exceedingly tenacious and of long duration. Almost every generation has apparently been convinced that faery belief was stronger among its predecessors. Katherine Briggs, mentioned earlier, also took up the same theme in her book: The Vanishing People.
Yet another belief was that fairies had no redeeming features at all; they were entirely demonic, a belief that became more popular after the Reformation and with the growth of Puritanism. For example, the hobgoblin, once a household spirit like a brownie that would be helpful if you took care not to offend it in any way, simply became evil. Scottish faery tradition, however, actually recognises two varieties of faeries: the Seelie Court and the Unseelie Court. Seelie means "Blessed". The Seelie Court is not evil, though it can play tricks on humans. The Unseelie Court, on the other hand, consists of the really dark fairies, but again both are equally ambiguous and, seemingly on a whim, either Court might choose to act brutally or otherwise towards humans. Fundamentally, these beings are no more wicked than a hungry tiger might appear to be if you unintentionally presented yourself to it as a welcome meal!
A more benign view, widely promoted by the Theosophical Society in its heyday, was that many faeries were nature spirits. These are believed to be creatures of the devic kingdom who take care of plants and other living things associated with the landscape. This view continues to have enduring support among the New Age fraternity, but it is not a view that conforms to traditional Celtic belief.
Trooping fairies refer to fairies that appear in groups and travel in long processions, usually along faery paths or what is sometimes referred to as ley lines. In Ireland, when a run of bad luck has dogged a household, a corner wall of the house has sometimes been removed so as not to block a faery path. Good luck then tends to follow. In extreme cases, however, when an entire building has blocked a faery path, the house has had to be demolished.
The other class of faery is the solitary, and these faeries tend to be much more mischievous and antisocial to humans than the trooping faeries. The leprechaun falls into the solitary category. The leprechaun, however, seems to be more of a creation of Victorian ideas than one of traditional folklore. Again, like many features of the fey, the origin of the word leprechaun is also much debated. Some folklorists claim that the name is derived from Lughchromain, meaning Little Lugh, Lugh being the Celtic god of light. Others disagree, and say that Lughchromain, simply means a dwarf. Whatever, the explanation, the leprechaun is associated with shoe making.
In Irish lore it is said that a leprechaun always has a crock of gold. If you can manage to sneak up on a leprechaun while he is busy and hold him fast so as not to escape, he will promise to reveal where the gold is hidden. However, if you blink or take your eye of the leprechaun for a brief moment, he will be off in a shot. But if you succeed in preventing his escape, the leprechaun will offer to pay for his freedom with a magic coin from his pouch. If you decide to take up his offer, however, you will quickly discover that the coin always magically returns to the leprechaun's pouch.
There are many variations of this tale. But what it clearly conveys is the tricky and elusive nature of the Fey, and yet paradoxically their sense of truthfulness. Curiously the tale also alludes to the elusive nature of reality as discovered by quantum science. Changing one's observation at the quantum level also changes the outcome of the observation.
Enchantment, therefore, is a central feature of the Fey, and is the theme of many folk tales; the two best known probably being Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer. Faeries are very adept at creating illusion, known as faery glamour. They can make you see whatever they wish you to see, or in fact not see. They also have the ability to mislead people by hiding or changing the appearance of familiar landmarks, or disguising treacherous ground to make it appear safe. Faeries are shape shifters and can transform themselves into any form they desire, or to appear as tiny or as huge as they wish.
One example is the selkie, which is a faerie that resembles a seal in the water but assumes human form on land. If a man should steal a female selkie's skin she is forced to become his wife. Although a selkie is said to make an excellent wife, the marriage is usually very short-lived because the selkie always yearns to return to the ocean where she naturally belongs. If she should ever find her sealskin, however, then she will immediately return to her true home, leaving her sorrowful husband to grieve over his great loss. The theme is always one of romantic tragedy.
Celtic folk had a great fear of changelings. Changelings were believed to be fairy children left in the place of stolen human babies. The theme of the swapped child is an old one; it was common in medieval literature and reflects concern over infants thought to be afflicted with unexplained diseases or disabilities. In a poor family it was difficult to provide for a child that grew up to be a permanent drain on the family resources. Some modern commentators suspect that infanticide was sometimes the solution to the problem.
In regard to the aforementioned theory that the fey were real flesh and blood people forced into hiding, it has been suggested that these hidden folk would sometimes sneak into communities, rather like gypsies were once accused of doing, and exchange their own sickly children for the healthy children of the invaders. This seems highly unlikely and is probably what we now call an urban myth. But in regard to the paranormal, it was not always babies or small children who were believed to be changelings. Adults could be taken too.
In 1895 a bizarre and horrible crime was committed in Ireland when Michael Cleary, along with some of his relatives, murdered his 26-year old wife, Bridget, in a horrendous and agonising way. Bridget felt unwell and had taken to her bed. Perhaps her husband thought that Bridget's recovery was taking longer than he would have liked and he became impatient that she was unable to take care of the household duties expected of her.
Whatever the reason, Michael Cleary accused Bridget of having been taken by the Fey. In an attempt to drive out what he believed was a changeling, so that his real wife could be returned to him, Bridget was held above the fire and a chamber pot of urine thrown over her. Next a burning stick, or a red-hot poker according to some sources, was shoved in her mouth. Finally, she was doused in paraffin and her clothes set on fire.
Eventually the police found Bridget's body in a nearby bog and Michael Cleary was arrested. However, instead of receiving the death sentence for murder, Michael Cleary was only charged with manslaughter and sentenced to twenty years behind bars.
Nowadays we are likely to assume that misogyny and patriarchal attitudes enabled Michael Cleary to escape the noose, but the mitigating factor, according to the judge, was that Michael Cleary strongly held the traditional belief in fairies and had convinced himself that Bridget really had been taken and substituted with a changeling. What this tragic tale clearly shows, is that faery belief was not merely a harmless and romantic indulgence; faery belief had a dangerous impact in the real world.
New Age Faeries, on the other hand, have mostly been sanitised and consequently many individuals are eager that the ever-elusive Faeries find a place in our modern world. An example of this is the currently popular fad of nailing fairy doors to trees. It first began, so it seems, in the U.S.A. with The Fairy Doors of Ann Arbor; a series of small doors, which were really a form of installation art. The first ones are said to have appeared in the home of Jonathan and Kathleen Wright in 1993. On April 7, 2005 the first little door seen in a public place was on the exterior of Sweetwaters Coffee and Tea establishment. Since then, fairy doors have popped up everywhere.
Whether the Ann Arbor doors began the craze is hard to say. But children have been attaching little faery doors to trees for many years in the belief that they will bring back faeries to the forest. Unfortunately, even here in the UK the craze became a problem in some areas, especially in Wayford Woods. Wayford Woods was part of an estate with Wayford Manor, an Elizabethan stone house in the small village of Wayford, near Crewkerne. A spokesperson for the woods told the BBC at the time: "It's a very complex situation, and nobody's admitting that they're evicting the fairies. It's just that fairy control is required; otherwise we'd be covered in fairy doors. Up to 200 doors are in the forest now, and a full-on fairy fairground was recently removed.
Nonetheless, one must be exceedingly careful and respectful as to what one chooses to remove. Fairy doors are one thing, but actual, living trees are a different matter. A little over twenty years ago, in 1999, Eddie Lenihan, the Irish storyteller and expert on the Fey, successfully lobbied officials in Ireland to save a 15-foot hawthorn tree from being uprooted during highway construction on the grounds that the tree was sacred to the Fey.
In the words of Eddie Lenihan: If they bulldoze the bush to make way for a planned highway bypass, the fairies will come; to curse the road and all who use it, to make brakes fail and cars crash, to wreak the kind of mischief fairies are famous for when they are angry, which is often.
There is a lesson there for humanity, whose arrogance, greed, rampant materialism and sense of entitlement has caused our living planet to react in self-defence. That is the most valuable lesson the Fey are able to teach us if we would but only pay attention and listen well.