There have always been legends of ‘fairies’; they exist in every country of the world. The people of ancient Greece and Rome worshipped the nymphs of meadows, streams and mountains, and the dryads who lived in trees. Ireland abounds with tales of people who have encountered leprechauns who showed them buried treasure at the end of rainbows, wailing banshees who heralded the death of relatives and drunken cluricauns who stole from wine cellars. In England there are old pamphlets describing the mischievous antics of Robin Goodfellow, the merry spirit of the greenwood who cared for its animals and played tricks on hunters, and stories of West Country pixies who led travellers astray, but who helped kindly farmers with their work. There are similar fables from Africa, Hawaii, the Americas, Australia, Europe, Japan, China and Russia.
A culture that believes in spirits is one fundamentally different from our modern Western materialistic society. It recognises that a life-force suffuses the whole of Nature, an energy that manifests in a range of spirits that fill the meadows, streams, wells, forests and even the air itself. They guard fields and individual trees, mountains and hearth fires. They may bless or curse humans as they please, and inflict sickness or health on the flocks and herds. Not so very long ago, an association with the fairies was a very real part of people’s lives. An excellent relationship with the ‘The Good Neighbours’- as the fairies were called – was essential for the well being and prosperity of anyone who depended on the land for his or her livelihood. Fairies were given offerings of milk on the old standing stones, bread and salt in the corners of fields, cream in saucers left on the hearth, and were left part of the harvest. Special stones – called dobby stones in the northern counties – had shallow depressions for making offerings to them, and were placed by field gates or the farmhouse door. Spiritual guardians called the Ward gathered at dusk in their sacred places, still known as ward trees, ward hills and ward stones, to guard villages. The Wild Hunt rode out to collect the souls of the wicked. For the countryman, fairies, elves and natural magic were part of the everyday experience.
As we humans moved away from our close connection to the earth, we lost our link with the spirits of the land. We forgot how to see them, how to contact them, and how to treat them. Stories of them persisted, but they lost their awesome status; we diminished them, in our imaginations, into the cute Tinkerbells of nursery tales, the tiny, tutu-skirted, gossamer-winged beings of Victorian fable. Real spirits, on the other hand, are potent beings of earth, air, fire and water, of plant, stream, rock and place; creatures of raw nature, representing its power and energies. Some of them are benevolent, but some are downright dangerous.
Once, every village had a wise woman or cunning man who dealt with the wildfolk. Such people were common in Britain and Ireland right up until the end of the First World War. Their job was to maintain the balance between the human and fairy world, to mediate with the spirits, to solicit their blessings for good harvests, to repair any damage done to their relationships with humans, to placate the forces of blight, to heal and to remove curses. Both the ancient Celts and Saxons had gifted individuals who were able to journey at will into the world of the spirits. In later times, these people were called witches, a name that comes from the Anglo-Saxon wicce, or wise one.
Witches and fairies were often thought to have the same powers: both use magic and both can bless and curse. In fact, the old Romany word for ‘fairy’ is the same as the one for ‘witch’. The Irish believed that a witch was created when a young girl spent seven years in the Otherworld with her fairy lover, coming back somewhat aged, but with knowledge of herbs, philtres and secret spells. The famous witch Biddy Early insisted that her powers came from the fairies. She used a blue bottle, given to her by the fairies, for healing and prophecy. At her death in 1873 it was thrown into a lake so that no one else could attempt to use it.
In the witch trial records, the accused often tried to explain that their powers came not from devils, but from the fairies. Elspeth Reoch of Orkney confessed, in 1616, that she had met a fairy man who offered to teach her to understand and see anything she wanted. In 1566, John Walsh of Netherberry in Dorset said that he knew when men were bewitched because the fairies told him. When he wanted to converse with fairies he would go to the hills where there were mounds of earth, and speak to them between the hours of one and noon, or at midnight. In 1587 John Penry of Wales spoke of swarms of soothsayers and enchanters who professed to walk, on Tuesday and Thursday nights, with fairies, bragging of having knowledge of them. Fifty years later, a Caernarvonshire man claimed to speak twice weekly with the fairies, again on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
This association of fairies and witches goes beyond the British Isles and seems to have an almost universal resonance in other parts of the world. For example, in parts of Eastern Europe, witches were called vilenice, which implies someone who deals with fairies [vile]. During an investigation during the late seventeenth century, a young vilenica confirmed that her powers had been granted to her by a fairy who had shown her the properties of herbs, and who could be called upon by virtue of certain herbs picked together with their roots. As in other places, there were tales of children and adults disappearing into the mountains for months or years, and returning with magical powers granted to them by the fairies. In northern Croatia, the people said that on each Good Friday a vile flies down from the sky to teach women how to heal people and be of benefit to them. The women had to go with their hair unbraided into the green grove, where two had to climb the old trees with the vile, and eat yarn, to better remember what the vile was teaching them; in this way they became vilenice. [i]
Scottish witch trials in particular were often notable for their accounts of the Fairy Queen, or Queen of Elfhame [‘Elf Home’]. Isobel Gowdie said that she met the Fairy Queen when she went into the hollow hills, and learned all her magic from the fairies whilst there. She spoke of the wildfolk that waited upon her coven as Robert the Jakis, Sanderis the Reed Reever, Thomas the Fairy and Swain the Roaring Lion, but she was stopped from speaking further by the interrogators, as she often was when she spoke of fairies, as can be seen from the transcripts. The interrogators only wanted to hear of devils and evil deeds.
Before the advent of Christianity, all the peoples of Europe acknowledged a multitude of spirits that inhabited the Earth; similar beliefs exist or have existed throughout the world. Early Christians denounced the gods and spirits of the old Pagan religions as baneful and identified the old Pagan gods as devils. Nymphs, dryads, satyrs, vegetation spirits and fairies were condemned by the church as devils. Aelfric, an eleventh century inhabitant of the monastery of Cerne Abbas in England, denounced those who made offerings to ‘earth-fast’ stones, trees and so on ‘even as the witches teach’. The word he used for witches was Wiccan. [ii] Such people were condemned as Heathens and Pagans, words respectively meaning ‘people of the heath’ and ‘people of the countryside’. Missionaries destroyed Pagan temples and groves, and cut down sacred trees in an attempt to banish the spirits that dwelt there. However, it was much harder to banish the fairy faith from the consciousness of the people who dwelt close to the land, who encountered its wildfolk on a regular basis. The notions of the country people have survived in folk-lore and folk practice to the present day in the shape of a belief in fairies.
According to the old lore, not everyone can see fairies; you have to be born with what the Scottish called ‘the sight’, an ability to see into the spirit world and to read the future. It is a talent possessed by the genuine wise woman, the shaman, the witch. Saxo, in the History of the Danes, written in 1182-1210, said that one had to be a gifted person to see spirits, and went on to explain that such people had probably experienced prophetic dreams in childhood, or had later undergone a sickness that opened the world of spirits to them, thus describing a classic shamanic initiation.[iii] In 1588, Alison Pearson was introduced to the world of fairies, as she lay sick in bed, by her dead cousin William Sympson who appeared to her in fairy form. He came to her as a ‘green man’ and told her he would help her if she would be faithful to him. Then he vanished and reappeared with a group of faeries, who persuaded Pearson to take part in their merrymaking. Sympson also told her how to use herbal remedies. Whenever Pearson spoke about the fairies to others, she was tormented with blows that left insensitive spots on her skin. She was convicted of witchcraft and burned at the stake.
One tale that describes an Otherworld initiation at the hands of fairy spirits is that of Thomas the Rhymer. He had been playing his lute beneath a hawthorn in the woods when a beautiful fairy, riding a white horse, emerged from the trees to listen. Eventually she dismounted and he couldn’t resist trying to kiss her. She warned him that such an act would bind him to her for seven years, but he did not hesitate. They journeyed together through the night to a bright meadow in which there were two paths, one to perdition and one to righteousness, but the Fairy Queen explained that for lovers and bards there was another path, a twisting third way that led to Fairyland. While in the fairy world Thomas was shown a mysterious tree which bore magical apples. The Queen of Elphame warned him that it bore all the plagues of hell, but it also conveyed the gift of prophecy. After seven years Thomas returned home, but his songs were sweeter and more poignant than ever before. He was also able to foretell the future, as in Fairyland he had eaten an apple whose flesh had the power of truth, a parting gift from the Fairy Queen. On his seventy-eighth birthday, he was holding a party when he was told that two white deer, a male and a female, were heading through the village to his house. He knew this to be a summons to Fairyland and followed them back there, where he still sings and plays.
The apple is the fruit of Otherworld knowledge. The plagues of hell that accompany it are the suffering and pain the shaman must go through to win the sight. Once this is won, and the apple eaten, he or she will never be the same again, and is forever changed. The third way described by the Fairy Queen is the way of the walker between the worlds – the shaman, the witch.
© Anna Franklin
Anna Franklin is the High Priestess of the Hearth of Arianrhod, which runs teaching circles and a working coven, and the annual Mercian Gathering, a Pagan camp which raises money for charity. She regularly speaks at conferences, moots and workshops around the country. She is the author of many books on witchcraft and Paganism, including the popular Sacred Circle Tarot, The Fairy Ring, Midsummer, Lughnasa, The Hearth Witch’s Compendium, Pagan Ways Tarot, Herb Craft, The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies, Working With Fairies, Handfasting, Familiars, The Oracle of the Goddess, Hearth Witch, Pagan Ritual and The Path of the Shaman. Anna’s books have been translated into nine languages.
Illustration Paul Mason
[ii] Quoted in Brian Bates, The Real Middle Earth, p 107
[iii] Quoted in Brian Bates, The Real Middle Earth