Fairies, Gods, and Goddesses
(One Modern Pagan Perspective)
One of those Frequently Asked Questions that comes along from time to time when confronted with the variety of beliefs around deities – or non-deities – in paganism today is the following: Why would anyone believe in fairies, but not believe in God? One answer, which might seem flippant, is that fairies have been seen since the dawn of humanity but no living person has ever seen God. But another factor to consider in a predominantly monotheistic society is the traditional assumption, yet fundamentally flawed idea, that the existence of the universe depended on a Supreme Designer and Creator. Another fair question to ask is: who created the Creator?
Taken at face value, that might seem an equally flippant question, but there is no reason to insist that a Prime Mover is necessary to explain the existence of the universe; the universe might always have existed, at least in some form or another. Many modern pagans feel no allegiance to an invisible and transcendent sky god, Prime Mover or not. Their allegiance is to the planet which actually created and supports us, including the diversity of life-forms upon it. Unlike most religions, modern paganism is earth-based.
Let us now return to the issue of fairies and pagan deities who, like us, are beings with a very close connection to the earth. First of all, it can be challenging for individuals who are products of rationalism and modernity to grasp the concept of fairies. Are they real, or aren’t they real? That’s a question often posed by many. To ask in return what is ‘real’, could be interpreted as evasion, even though the nature of reality is still much of a mystery to humankind, despite the march of scientific enquiry since the Age of Enlightenment.
The folklorist Jeremy Harte once said that fairy tradition can be very subtle about what is real and what isn’t. For example, he added that ‘if you cut the top off a grassy mound where fairies are said to dwell, you won’t find any fairies inside – but you might soon find out that you should have left well alone’. The same can be said for the chopping down of a fairy thorn tree, which is why more prudent infrastructure development in both Ireland and Iceland has detoured new roads around fairy trees and similar fairy habitats, rather than invoke the wrath of the Good People. The fairies are a mysterious race who neither deny nor confirm to the casual enquirer their objective existence. Even the great Irish mystic and writer, W. B. Yeats, could not penetrate beyond that, apart from having once been told by the fairies that they had come to give him metaphors for poetry.
As for the literary tradition, it must bear some responsibility in shaping the popular image of fairies, as too must the Victorians, who tended to portray fairies as harmless and endearing gossamer-like creatures with butterfly wings, fit only for the amusement of children. The Celtic perception of fairies is far removed from that. Like the gods, goddesses and heroes of classical pagan cultures, the fairies of Celtic tradition are powerful and, more often than not, anthropomorphic in nature, which means, of course, that they are perceived as binary gendered beings: male and female.
Nonetheless, as a consequence of social progress and change, a variety of human genders are now becoming recognised and accepted. As to the fairies, binary distinction, and even species diversity, however, poses no obstacle to them, because fairies are shape-shifters; they can make themselves tall or small and assume any form they choose – humanoid or beast. It is also significant that one important way the Celtic people acquired an understanding of fairy nature was through stories, many of which contained motifs common to the myths and legends of classical pagan cultures, such as Ancient Greece and Rome.
One example of this is the story of Peleus who married the sea-nymph Thetis. Having taken the advice of Proteus, Peleus held tightly on to her, despite Thetis undergoing a variety of shape-shifting transformations in an attempt to escape. This Greek story parallels the Scottish folktale of Tam Lin, in which the Fairy Queen casts a spell upon Tam, who undergoes a similar shape-shifting tribulation, while loving Janet clings on to him for dear life and finally succeeds in his rescue.
Another example is the story of Polyphemus the giant who asks Odysseus his name, and is craftily told that his name is ‘Nobody’. After Polyphemus falls into a drunken sleep, Odysseus drives a stake into the giant’s eye. When Polyphemus shouts for help, proclaiming that Nobody has hurt him, his fellow-giants are somewhat unsympathetic to his plight. Centuries later in an Irish folktale, the same motif is present when a fairy – a uirisg – is deceived into believing that the human which he encounters is called Nobody, and ends up with burning ash from the fireplace poured on his head.
There are countless examples of such cultural exchanges of motifs, which indicate that traditional Celtic fairies are not far removed from Greek and Roman gods. In Ireland, the fairies are said to have once been powerful deities – the Tuatha De Danann – before being conquered by invaders a long, long time ago and finally retreating westwards where they grew less and less prominent over the following centuries. These former powerful deities, however, still have a stake in our world and are skilled in the art of deception, which is why the term ‘fairy’ has associations with both fate and enchantment. Their ability to create illusions and control the fate of humans meant that the Irish tended to regard these beings with caution and to approach them indirectly, if at all.
If they were referred to, it tended to be with euphemisms, such as The Good People, The Gentry, The Other Crowd, The Little People, Themselves, and so on. Clearly, it was essential to keep on the good side of these beings and to avoid offending them in any way – and the fairies were quick to take offence. Propitiation was a common and necessary practise. Sometimes the Fey would bestow good fortune on humans, but the same fairies could also curse and even destroy a human who tried to manipulate them into providing personal favours. As the renowned Irish storyteller Eddie Lenihan once pointed out in regard to the fairies: ‘That’s a long way from Walt Disney’.
Although there was much interaction between fairies and humans, it tended to be on the fairies’ terms. The modern concept of ‘working’ with these beings in a magical or ritual setting, particularly war goddesses like the shape-shifting Morrigan, would have been alien to the Celtic mind. Recognising the role of such goddesses in the world, and embracing them, are two different things. In our modern society, however, a cultural shift has taken place. As to what has brought about such a shift can be difficult to assess. It might be the result of having been steeped in centuries of monotheism, in which Good and Evil are clearly defined. For example, although bad things happen in the world, Christian dualists never place blame for that at the feet of their own Supreme God, who is believed to be all-benevolent and a loving Father. Christians have a scapegoat in the form of Satan to account for evil and dark forces.
This cannot be said for the Great Goddess, or Mother Goddess, however. She is an alternative to a male god, but has no scapegoat like Satan to account for the negativity, tragedy and misfortune that plague the world. Instead, it is believed that the Goddess embodies both Good and Bad, Darkness and Light, and which is expressed through Her many aspects. It has been suggested that such a unified perception of Her can lull one into thinking that engaging with Her darker aspects is fundamentally safe; after all, the Goddess is female and will take care of Her own, so it is believed. This is undeniably reassuring to women invoking Her darker aspects and who might be confident that they will be spared any misfortune or subsequent psychic backlash. Well, that’s the theory.
Perhaps such over-confidence is also encouraged by the fact that the world beyond our doorstep is tamer than rural Ireland and other wild localities in centuries past. Many individuals in our relatively safe and modern world have acquired a false sense of security, with far greater expectations than their ancestors to a comfortable and trouble-free life with all its benefits. Consequently, any obligation to make personal sacrifices and remain on good terms with the fairies is often absent. Such a self-interested attitude displeases the gods, who despise being taken for granted, and one should consider very carefully the implications of invoking such deities or attempting to work with them for personal benefit, even if the reasons for doing so are perceived by the practitioner as wholesome, ethical and for the good of all.
A further point to consider is whether our failure to acknowledge or show respect to the Other Crowd, except when we want them to grant us favours, is a contributary factor in what seems to be a decline in modern societies. The backlash of Nature’s forces is a possible indicator that humans are overstepping the mark; economically, ecologically, politically, and in so many other ways.
Having read this far, you might be wondering if the ‘Fairy Faith’ is spiritually and ethically deficient and a poor substitute for a more orthodox religion, many which claim to offer a more comforting world-view. If comfort is one’s desire, then, yes – there are religious systems which will cater to that need. However, the ‘Fairy Faith’ is not a ‘spiritual vending machine’ from which benefits and rewards are dispensed like fizzy drinks. The Way of the Old Gods is an esoteric path, along which great insights will unfold and enchantments will be experienced as we strive to make our way forward. It is a way to resurrect the dual qualities of Imagination and Wonder, which have been buried under the weight of modernity and shallow materialism. As the Queen of Elfland said to Thomas the Rhymer: “And see ye not that bonny road, which winds around the fernie brae? That is the road to fair Elfland, where you and I this night maun gae”.