Fairies- Spirits of the Dead?

A Cornishman called Noy met his dead sweetheart among the fairy hoards One day he set out for an inn but when three days had passed and he hadn’t returned home his servants went to look for him. He was discovered in a ruined barn and was amazed to discover that he had been missing for three days. He had got lost on the moor trying to take a short cut, but had discovered a farmhouse where they were holding a Harvest Home supper. Inside hundreds of richly dressed people were feasting, but they all looked rather small. He was staggered to recognise his former sweetheart, Grace Hutchens, dead four years. He knew then that the company inside the house were fairies. Grace warned him not to touch her, eat the fairy food, or drink the cider, or he would be unable to leave. Mr Noy believed he knew a way to rescue them both and took his hedging gloves from his pocket, turned them inside out and threw them among the fairies, who vanished taking Grace with them. (W. Bottrell, Traditions and Hearthside Stories of the West of Cornwall, Penzance, 1870)

The folklorist Katherine Briggs noted that the dead and fairies were curiously entangled in popular tradition; fairies and the dead were often seen mingling together to the extent that they often seem to be one and the same. In Armagh fairies were thought to be spirits of dead friends and it was said that if you had many friends among the departed you would have many friendly fairies, but that if you had many enemies among the dead there would be many fairies trying to do you harm. The Fairy Market was called ‘The Fair of the Dead’ and was held on All Hallows Eve and it is sometimes the dead and sometimes the fairies that hold the market, though they are often confused as one and the same.

In Ireland it was said that they were glimpsed carrying human coffins along with the pall bearers, and in Wales that they never failed to follow a corpse. One young man was imprudent enough to go out on All Hallows Eve and encountered King Finvarra and his Queen Oonagh. Their company was full of merriment and passed around much food and wine, but ‘for all that they were the company of the dead’. He recognised a neighbour who had died many years before. In other parts of Europe, fairies are said to be the ghosts of suicides, murder victims, unbaptised children or women who have died in childbirth.

Unbaptised childrenare at particular risk of being kidnapped by fairies and swapped for changelings. The Huldra[‘Hidden Folk’] are Scandinavian elves who take away unbaptised children and replace them with umskiptinger or changelings. The name may be derived from the goddess Hulda. Many fairies are said to be the souls of unbaptised children. These include the SlavonicVila, the Mexican Jimaninos, the hounds of the Wild Hunt or the spirits that accompany Frau Holda’s hunt. In Russian lore theIgoshahouse fairy is the spirit of an unbaptised child, as is the English pinket, the Southern SlavonicSamovily, the Scottish Spunkiesand various Will O’the Wisps. Other fairies are the spirits of unborn or stillborn children, including the Cambodian Prãyand the Malaysian Bajang.

Many fairies are expressly spoken of as ghosts, and even some of their names their names simply mean ‘dead’. The Russian Mavky [‘Dead’] are the souls of children drowned by their mothers or drowned unbaptised. In summer, they are found swimming in the rivers and lakes. They may also live in the woods or on the steppes where they are sometimes heard crying pitifully that their mothers allowed them to die unbaptised. If you happen to hear one weeping in this way you should say “I baptise thee in the name of the Father, The Son and the Holy Spirit” and this will set them free. If after seven years no one has performed this service for them they become water fairies. Cognates are the Navjaci [‘Dead’], Southern Slavonic fairies, the spirits of unbaptised children. As they wander around, pitifully weeping and searching for their own mothers they attack women in childbed. If a kind person says the baptismal words over them, they will be set free. In a similar fashion, the Navky[‘Dead’] are water fairies of Finland who appear as ravens or crows or as pale children who cling to the branches of riverside trees and wail piteously. In this guise, they try to lure people into the water by pretending to be drowning. Sacrifices were once made to the navky or their permission asked before crossing a stream or swimming in a lake.

Fairies are often also ancestral spirits. In the original story of Cinderella, the fairy godmother was the spirit of her dead mother. The Dísir[‘Goddesses’] are supernatural females in Scandinavian myth who dispense fate in the role of fairy godmothers and were sometimes referred to simply as ‘dead women’. They appear in folklore as female ancestral spirits or house fairies.

This idea of ancestral spirits residing with the family and constituting their luck is a common motif. The Hamingja or Hamingia [‘Luck’] is the spirit of a person’s or a family’s luck in Norse myth, often personified as a stately woman. In one of the Icelandic sagas a man dreams that a lovely woman is travelling towards him from a certain direction and interprets this as his grandfather having died and his hamingja now coming to live with him.

Similar protective house spirits, thought of as house fairies, are found throughout the world. In ancient Rome the Penatesdwelt with particular families to help and protect them, and offerings were made to them at every meal. They were connected with the Lares; the spirits of the dead or ancestors, and the terms are sometimes interchangeable.

House fairies are often spoken of as the ghosts of dead family members or servants. In the Shetland Isles, in the early eighteenth century, every family of substance had a brownie to which they made sacrifice. When the milk was churned a few drops were sprinkled in every corner of the house for him. When they brewed a few drops would be sprinkled into the hole in the ‘brownies’ stone’. There was also a special stack or corn called the ‘brownie’s stack’, which was never fenced or roped like the others, but which no wind ever seemed to blow away. Some think brownies are Teutonic in origin, since the term ‘brownie’ appears where the Teutons settled, spreading up into the lowlands of Scotland and into the Orkneys and Shetland

The Celts held themselves to be descended from the god of the underworld, the Lord of the Dead who came out of the west. This has led some writers to assume that fairies are nothing more than ancestral spirits. The Roman writer Pomponius Mela wrote that the Celts believed that souls were eternal, and another life went on in the infernal realms. For this reason, they were buried with things appropriate to them in life. He said that there were even those who would fling themselves on the funeral piles of their relatives in order to share their new life with them. Caesar also commented that the Celts left offerings for the departed. Cups containing milk and food were left at wells, groves and sacred stones as offerings.

Contrary to the bowdlerised Victorian idea of cute fairies, their intentions were generally malicious. Many fairies try to draw people to their deaths to join their ranks.In many parts of the world the will o’the wisp is attributed to the bog fairies or mischievous imps who appear as balls of light to lead travellers astray or fairies who carry lanterns to guide the unwary over cliff tops or into marshland. As the playwright John Fletcher said in The Shepherdess:

No Goblin, Wood-god, Fairy, Elfe or Fiend,

Satyr or other power that haunts the Groves,

Shall hurt my body, or by vain illusion

Draw me to wander after idle fires.

If a person follows one, they may meet their death in a bog or a deep pool.  Some say that the lights are the souls of dead children. Others say that will o’the wisps are the souls of greedy men with hidden treasure, money lenders and swindlers, or people neither good enough for heaven nor evil enough for hell. In Northern Europe such lights are seen hovering over the tombs or burial mounds of warriors, and thought to be the souls of the dead, guarding the treasure buried within the grave. In German and Swedish lore the lights belong to the souls of those who, in life, disregarded boundary markers and stole a neighbour’s land. In Italy they are souls in purgatory. Seeing a will o’the wisp, sometimes called a corpse candle, may be an omen of death, either for the person who sees it, or for someone they love.

© Anna Franklin

Illustration Paul Mason


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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: