Throughout history, there have been many people who have known and worked with spirits of the kind we now call fairies. Here in Britain, 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, aword 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.
Fairies are said to inhabit a kingdom we call Fairyland, Elphame, or the Otherworld. This realm is not separate from ours, but overlays it, unseen except in special circumstances. Fairies are occasionally glimpsed in our world, but usually only in the blink of an eye or on the edge of dreams. However, there are places where the two worlds sometimes meet; natural power spots, bridges between the worlds where people have occasionally slipped from the everyday world into Fairyland, perhaps walking into the mist between two old stones, or stepping accidentally into a fairy ring, only to find themselves in a kingdom where it is always summer, where the orchards bear apples and flowers at the same time, and where death and old age are unknown.
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 wildfolk. 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 fairies, 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. 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 similar 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 fairies, 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. [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.
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. [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 folklore 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. Sometimes the feeling was mutual, and in the nineteenth century, when at sea, fishermen on the Moray Firth would never mention such words as ‘church’ or ‘minister’. Any utterance suggestive of the new faith would be displeasing to the ancient spirits of the ocean and might bring disaster upon the boat.
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. The future witch or shaman may be the lonely child who hovers on the edge of social groups, misunderstood by those around them because he or she is different, seeing things, hearing things, aware of things that others are not. This is reflected in fairy tales where it is always the orphan or the outcast who contacts the fairy or witch, and who has the adventures.
People who see the fairies are often called ‘fey’ themselves, i.e. fairylike. It was not unknown for seers to have some fairy blood in their veins. It was rumoured that fairies and humans often mated; preachers even denounced human and fairy liaisons from the pulpit. The offspring of such marriages were always wild and strange, their beautiful eyes and bold, reckless temperaments betraying their fairy blood. They were mystics and possessed second sight, or they became legendary warriors, bards or musicians. Many famous people are thought to have had one mortal and one Otherworldly parent, including Alexander the Great, the Queen of Sheba and Merlin. Even Shakespeare was said to have been part fairy. It is said that people with fairy blood are passionate, sensitive and psychic, and if they find their true path may develop into the artists, poets, seers, shamans and witches of our world: indeed, the heritage is sometimes called the ‘witch blood’.
Today people who see fairies and spirits are often derided as delusional, but in the past such people were highly honoured. 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] We have already seen that witches derive their powers from fairy spirits, and this may follow a shamanic initiation, whereby a sickness or other desperate situation opens up the Otherworld of spirits to the witch. 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.
In 1623 Scottish witch Isobel Haldane claimed that as she lay in her bed she was taken forth and carried to a hillside, the hill opened and she entered inside. She stayed for three days with the fairy folk, until she was delivered from Fairyland by a man with a grey beard.
One tale that describes an Otherworld initiation is that of Thomas the Rhymer. He had beenplaying 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 a walker between the worlds.
© Anna Franklin
[i] Institute of Ethnology and Folk-lore Research 2004, www.ief.hr
[ii] Quoted in Brian Bates, The Real Middle Earth, p 107
[iii] Quoted in Brian Bates, The Real Middle Earth