WITCHES AND FAIRIES

Amazingly similar stories of fairies, under a variety of names, exist around the world from Africa to the Americas: they are white and shining, they can appear in animal form, they live in the underworld with the dead or in an Otherworldly paradise; they are responsible both for the fertility of the land, and can also cause disease, blight, decay and death. Wherever we find fairies in the world [and they are everywhere], their names, more often than not, simply mean ‘spirit’ or else ‘shining’ and sometimes just ‘lord’ or ‘lady’.

In these legends of fairies, we can trace pre-Christian concepts of nature spirits, along with the principles of dealing with them. Even into the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the good Christian farmers of Europe believed in spirits of land and water that could affect the growth of the crops and the fecundity of the land itself. There is plenty of evidence in Britain, Ireland and the rest of Western Europe that regular offerings were made to the fairies, on stones in the corners of fields, on the hearth and special places outside the farmhouse door. These offerings were both to placate them, and prevent them doing harm, and to win their help and friendship.

Throughout history, there have been many people who have known and worked with the spirits some call fairies. Here in Britain, where I live, both the ancient Celts and Anglo-Saxons believed in such beings, a faith that has had a lasting legacy up until the present day.  The Celtic name for fairies is sidhe, a word that means a burial mound, hill or earth barrow, since this is where many fairies live. It is said that when the Celts invaded Ireland, the resident people, the Tuatha Dé Danaan who had supernatural powers, were forced to retreat into the hollow hills and were only occasionally seen after that, though people left offerings of meat and milk on their mounds.  They are very tall and thin, eternally young and beautiful in appearance, and generally dressed in white. The Anglo-Saxon term for similar spirits is elf or aelf, a word meaning something like ‘white spirit’, or ‘shining spirit’. They are tall and beautiful and shine with a kind of inner light. They also live in mounds, and people left offerings, called elf blots, of meat and milk on the mounds for them.

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 fairies 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 wellbeing 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.

Fairies could make the crops bountiful, animals hale and hearty, and they protected their favourite humans from harm, occasionally gave them great riches, beauty or magical powers. They could bestow the power to heal, or give a person the ability to make wonderful music or beautiful works of art and craftsmanship.

The idea that fairies could also be harmful beings –if they chose- was universal, but one that is divorced from the concepts of tiny cute Tinkerbells that are entirely modern and have their roots in bowdlerised Victorian nursery tales, not real fairy lore. Fairies could blight the crops, make fields and animals barren, and steal the goodness from food. Fairies could also steal the spirit of the land itself; the fields appeared to yield a crop but the ears of corn would not fill out, the harvest would be slender and the animal fodder without nourishment. Fairies were thought to use elf bolts to cause harm, propelling them into humans or livestock. Deaths were attributed to them and it was thought they could induce paralysis; the origin of the word ‘stroke’ for paralysis is derived from ‘elf-stroke’. They could cause other illnesses: in Norway people fear the elf wind or alvgest which is the breath of elves and which covers the body of a person with blisters; cramps were a punishment for annoying the fairies, and it was widely believed that tuberculosis was caused by eating fairy food or by visiting a fairy hill at night; rheumatism, cramps and bruising were thought to be a punishment for annoying the fairies.

Fairies also took the souls of animals and humans away to fairyland. If a child became ill it was suspected of being a changeling, a fairy child substituted for a human one. So strong was that belief in rural Ireland, that in 1895 Brigit Cleary was burned to death under suspicion of being a changeling. When Bridget had failed to recover from an illness her family decided that she must be possessed by a malevolent fairy and tried to expel it with doses of urine and herbs. When this failed her loving family resorted to the purification of fire.

It was necessary to take precautions against the powerful and easily offended fairies. It was considered politic to keep most of them out of the house by putting protective patterns on the hearth and threshold. The water in which feet had been washed gave them access, so this was carefully disposed of. Iron horseshoes were hung over the door to prevent their entrance. Children were protected with iron charms and red thread, and iron nails were carried in the pocket when travelling.

When things went wrong, or relationships with the fairies broke down completely, it was necessary to call in an expert: the wise woman, cunning man or fairy doctor. These were people with special gifts, who knew how to see fairies, how to travel into their realm, and who gained their knowledge from the fairies themselves. Evidence of the continuity of these beliefs in Europe, and accounts of many such practitioners, is readily traceable from the Dark Ages onwards, through till the 1960s and beyond.

In the practices and taboos surrounding fairies, there are many parallels with shamanic cultures. These include working with animal totems and familiar spirits, the feeding of the familiars, travels to the otherworld, the association of the spirits of the Otherworld with the ancestors and the spirits of the dead, and the various offerings made to the spirits. Nor were these beliefs confined to the witches and cunning men, but shared by the general population, even the most learned and distinguished, as evidenced by the writings of King James I. It is in these beliefs and tradition that we find the real roots of modern witchcraft.

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. They inherited the mantle of the old Druids and the ancient priests and priestesses of the Pagan world, who became the witches and fairy doctors of later ages. 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.

The old witches worked their magic in conjunction with wildfolk, and there is plenty of evidence for this in the 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.

In the 1600s, in the North of England, a man was taken into court on charges of witchcraft. He claimed to use a powder to heal sicknesses, and offered to lead the gentlemen of the court to the fairy hill where he obtained the medicine. He had discovered the hill when he was destitute, and agonising about how to feed his wife and children. A lovely woman had appeared to him and advised him that if he followed her counsel, he would get a good living from it. She led him to a little hill and knocked on it three times. The hill opened and they went in, coming to a fair hall, where a fairy queen sat in great state, with many people about her. She gave him a box full of white powder, and taught him how to use it by giving two or three grains to any who were sick, which would heal them. The Judge asked whether the place within the hill, which he called a hall, were light or dark, and the accused replied it was like twilight. Being asked how he got more powder, he said that when he wanted it, he went to that hill and knocked three times, and said every time “I am coming, I am coming”, whereupon it opened.  Going in, he was conducted by the beautiful lady to the queen. The outraged judge said that if he were judged guilty, he would have him whipped all the way to the fairy hall, but the jury, since he had cured many with his white powder, acquitted him.  Similar stories of witches gaining their powers from fairies were told over and over again all around Britain.

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. [1]

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.

In 1588 Alison Pearson was condemned for ‘haunting and repairing with the Good Neighbours and the Queen of Elphame’. It seems that the Fairy Queen sent messengers to summon likely witches. In 1670, Jean Weir said that when she kept a school at Dalkeith a tall woman came to her house. She had a child upon her back and two at her feet. The woman desired that Jean should employ her to negotiate on her behalf with the Fairy Queen. This was how Jean first became involved in witchcraft. Her brother Major Weir offered himself up and was executed as a witch in Edinburgh, refusing all attempts to convert him. In 1576 Bessie Dunlop stated that as she lay in childbed, a stout woman came and sat down beside her, comforted and drank with her. The coven leader told her that it was the Queen of Elphame, his mistress.

The old British witches called their supernatural mistress the Fairy Queen and it was she who led the Sabbat. Similarly, many Italian witches believed in the historical existence of a woman [or goddess] named Aradia, who brought about a revival of Italian witchcraft, travelling the country and preaching the old Pagan religion of Diana, whom they called Queen of the Fairies. There was a Rumanian Pagan sect known as the Callusari who, during the Middle Ages, worshipped a mythical empress who they sometimes called “Arada” [possibly Aradia] naming her as Queen of the Fairies. The Cǎlluşari dancers were the followers of the Fairy Queen, and their dances were thought to have originated in the Otherworld. Similar Macedonian dance troops were called Rusalia or ‘Fairies’. Like fairies, they were responsible for bringing fertility to the land.

The Italian carnival society of the Cavallino assembled under the banner of Erodiade, a name for the Queen of the Fairies, possibly synonymous with the witch goddess Herodias. The society grew to prominence in the Middle Ages, appearing in processions, pantomimes and healing sessions, but may have had a very ancient, Pagan origin. It was exclusively male, its members dressed in women’s clothes and wore make up. They always gathered in odd numbers, such as seven or nine or eleven. The Catholic Church persecuted them as Pagans who worshipped the goddess Diana.

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. The spirits were as much a part of the land as the animals that lived upon it, the birds that flew above it and the fish that swan in the sea, and equally essential for its life, wellbeing and growth. Shrines to these beings were scattered across the countryside. Special trees were protected by fences and decorated with garlands. People made offerings on stones, at wells and rivers. Every sacred place had a spiritual guardian and a human guardian on whose land it happened to stand.

However, in the Christian world view, trees, rocks and stones have no spirit, no consciousness, and those who made offerings to the fairies within were deluded. 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. [2] 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.

In Christian doctrine, any spirit that is neither saint nor angel is considered demonic in origin, and fairies are included under this heading. According to one Irish belief, those angels that were cast out of heaven for their pride became fairies. Some fell to earth and dwelled there long before man; others fell into the sea and became water fairies. Others fell into hell where the devil commands them. They dwell under the earth and tempt humans into evil, teaching witches how to make potions, spells, and enchantments. King James I’s book Daemonologie equated fairies with devils in no uncertain terms and advised people who had them in their homes to get rid of them immediately. Writing in 1701 the Orkney vicar Rev. John Brand said that fairies were evil spirits seen dancing and feasting in wild places. English Puritan writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries believed all fairies were devils.

If people worked with fairies, it was considered that they had renounced their Christian faith, something often reiterated in the trial records. In 1670 Jean Weir confessed that she had performed a ritual at the bidding of a fairy so that all her troubles would depart. Afterwards she found that she had wonderful ability with spinning, but this made her afraid, and she stayed indoors for twenty days weeping, because she thought that what she had done in working with a fairy was, in effect, a renunciation of her baptism.

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. It is often the practice of a new religion to demonize the gods and spirits of the old, rival religion.

© Anna Franklin, Working With Fairies, Career Press, 2006

 

[1] Institute of Ethnology and Folk-lore Research 2004, www.ief.hr

[2] Quoted in Brian Bates, The Real Middle Earth, p 107

Author: annafranklinblog

Anna Franklin is the High Priestess of the Hearth of Arianrhod, which runs teaching circles, 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 Pagan Ways Tarot, Sacred Circle Tarot, The Fairy Ring, Herb Craft, Magical Incenses and Oils, Personal Power, A Romantic Guide to Handfasting, Familiars, The Oracle of the Goddess, Hearth Witch, The Path of the Shaman and The Hearth Witch’s Compendium. Anna’s books have been translated into nine languages.

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