Fairies:: A Guide to the Celtic Fair Folk

Fairies:: A Guide to the Celtic Fair Folk

by Morgan Daimler


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The subject of fairies in Celtic cultures is a complex one that seems to endlessly intrigue people. What exactly are fairies? What can they do? How can we interact with them? Answering these questions becomes even harder in a world that is disconnected from the traditional folklore and flooded with modern sources that are often vastly at odds with the older beliefs. This book aims to present readers with a straightforward guide to the older fairy beliefs, covering everything from Fairyland itself to details about the beings within it. The Otherworld is full of dangers and blessings, and this guidebook will help you navigate a safe course among the Good People.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781782796503
Publisher: Moon Books
Publication date: 12/08/2017
Pages: 264
Sales rank: 1,225,766
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Morgan is a blogger, poet, teacher of esoteric subjects, witch, Druid, dedicant of Macha, and wandering priest/ess of Odin. Located in Connecticut, USA.

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And do you not see that bonny road, That winds about the ferny hillside? That is the road to fair Elfland, Where you and I this night must go. The Ballad of Thomas the Rhymer

In my experience when we seek Fairy we always start by seeing the parts of it that most reflect ourselves and what we want to see. Perhaps that's a greater truth of life in general, that we always see ourselves reflected first in the things around us, before we see those things as they truly are. And so when we hear people talking about Fairy and their experiences with it we will find a wide array of descriptions, from the frightening to the fantastic, the terrifying to the enticing. None of them are wrong, and none of them are exactly right either, and that's your first lesson about Fairy: it is in all ways and always a contradiction.

There's a wide array of teachings about Fairy in different spiritual contexts and most of them tend to treat the Otherworld as one homogenous place; this is understandable and difficult to avoid. I think there's a huge need for caution though in not over-generalizing an individual's perceptions and experiences into universal truths about Fairy. Because it isn't like a single city that can be summarized neatly - rather it's more an entire world with places of civilization and places of dangerous wilds; confusing one for the other won't end well. Perhaps one person always goes to one place and has one type of interaction, and that's fine, and passing along teachings based on that is fine, but that one place is not the sum total of what Fairy is, any more than Boston is what Earth is. The same holds true for the beings within it becoming an expert in mice doesn't give you any experience with wolves, if you understand what I'm saying, and vice versa. As we look at what and where Fairy is, keep this in mind and understand that when people talk about 'Fairy' they are either making broad generalizations, like we do when we say 'Earth' or the 'mortal realm', or else are meaning it in a specific sense, but using the general term.

Defining Fairyland

So, what then is Fairy? That is a complicated question, as there are many worlds besides our own, and the world of Fairy is only one of them, if indeed it is one single world. It goes by many names: Fairy, Fairyland, Elfland, Elfhame, Elphame, Elvenland, an Saol Eile (the Otherworld), and in other cultures there are places that may be analogous to the Celtic Fairy, such as Ljossalfheim. These places aren't the same place, but they are similar in context as being the home of beings that are a type of fairy, in that case the Alfar.

The term Fairy is an old one for the land in which Otherworldly beings dwell, and indeed we see authors such as Chaucer using the generic term 'elf' for the inhabitants and the term Fairy for the place almost exclusively (Williams, 1991). Although my own preference is to refer to the place as Fairy, capital 'F', and the inhabitants as fairies, lower case 'f', it is common in folklore - particularly Scottish - to see it referred to as Elfame or Elfhame. There are a variety of spellings given, but for convenience I am using the more modern version here. An older example can be found in this quote from the 16 century witchcraft trial of Bessie Dunlop: 'The guid wichts who winnit in the court o' Elffehame' (the good creatures who dwelt in the court of Elfhame) (McNeil, 1956). In the Irish, the realm in which the Good People live is sometimes called An Saol Eile, which is usually translated as 'The Otherworld'. However, 'Saol Eile' literally means the 'Other Life' and this is important to remember as we contemplate what exactly the Otherworld is.

The simplest definition of what Fairy is would be the place that fairies live, but that can easily become circular logic depending on how we are defining fairies. It may be easier to say that Fairy is a place that is a separate world associated with beings that would normally be considered fairies, where time runs differently, and where the presence of magic is considerably stronger than here. Folklore tells us that fairies may live in lakes, or hills, or mountains, but it was always less that they literally existed in the water or physical ground of those places and more that those places acted as doorways to the Otherworld. The nature of the Otherworld itself is not widely agreed on either in folklore or by scholars. In the oldest mythology, Fairy was a world full of fantastical things such as animals that could be killed and eaten one day and rise alive and whole the next morning. During the medieval period Fairy was often equated to a near Heavenly paradise, sometimes described with the exact same phrases found in ecclesiastical texts discussing Heaven, but gradually came to be associated more strongly with the land of the dead (Firth-Green, 2016). There was also an association of Fairy with Purgatory, reinforced by medieval stories that explicitly connected the two, although it was never clear that they were in fact the same place (Firth-Green, 2016). In the same way in the Irish material we see this idea hinted at with references to all souls of the dead having to go to Tech Duinn, the house of Donn, Donn being both a God and King of Fairy and his house being in the Otherworld. The only consistent thread to be found was a belief that, however similar Fairy may seem to our own world, it was a place foreign to living humans and inhabited by strange and uncanny beings.

I do want to clarify one point of confusion here that I often run across. The Otherworld, what I call Fairy, is not the only other realm of existence, and there are several other well-known ones that are often confused with or conflated with Fairy. The astral plane, for example, is not the same as Fairy, but rather is a different and unique place. The astral seems to be more closely connected to our world and more strongly influenced by it, while Fairy is connected to our world, but not as a mirror image or a place we can influence from within our world. The axiom that applies to the astral plane, 'As above so below', would not apply to Fairy, which exists independently from our reality in that sense. This is where it becomes important to remember that there are many other worlds besides our own, but they are not all the Otherworld of Fairy.


One distinctive feature of Fairy is the flow of time; in most cases time in Fairy seems to move at a different pace than on Earth. We may see a single night go by in Fairy while years pass on Earth, or in one anecdote years passed for a man in Fairy while only minutes passed here (Briggs, 1976). We see a variety of stories where a person joins a fairy dance for what they believe is only a single night only to find at dawn that years, decades, or even a century has passed while they danced. In the tale of King Herla a single night of feasting in Fairy occurs while 200 years pass on mortal Earth (Briggs, 1976). There is no clear predictable pattern to this, however, and the fairies themselves seem exempt from the disjointed temporal effect, as they often and regularly cross between the two worlds, even maintaining friendships with mortals over the length of the person's lifetime, without difficulty. The same is obviously not true for mortals, or at least not without fairy aid, as we see many mortals doomed by their time in Fairy because they return to a world that is utterly changed from the one they left by nothing more esoteric than the passage of time.

Describing Fairy

Fairy has been described in many ways in folklore, from a world that is much like our own in its appearance to one that is quite fantastic in nature. One description says that Fairy has no sun, moon, or stars, and that all its springs contain blood, which flows there from the mortal world (Acland, 1997). The blood in the water could be a metaphor for the connection between fairies and the mortal dead, which we shall discuss in more depth later, or it could be meant to be interpreted literally. Blood has a lot of important symbolism, but it also very literally carries vital substances including salt, minerals and metals, and healing compounds. Fairy can be a wilderness or a massive city, wild or civilized. In one story from Pembrokeshire, a shepherd who travels to Fairy describes a shining palace with a variety of gorgeous gardens (Briggs, 1976). A Welsh description from an anecdote describes a great city with large houses where all the people never seemed to lack anything (Gwyndaf, 1991). It is often described as exceedingly fair, green, and pleasant, although also usually said to be in a perpetual twilight; the great halls are said to be rich and full of treasure and jewels (Acland, 1997). In the Irish myth of the Echtrai Nera it would seem that when it is summer in Fairy it is winter in our world, as Nera goes into a fairy hill on Samhain (Halloween) and is given a flowering branch from a fruit tree to prove his story when he leaves. In contrast, however, the Gesta Regnum Britannie describes Fairy as a land of perpetual spring, abundant in flowers and fruit, and without any illness or unhappiness (Firth-Green, 2016).

Finding Fairy

In the Irish sources it seems to be both a cohesive place that is not our world, and also a collection of related or contiguous places that are not here. Sometimes these are described as islands, or beyond the ninth wave, but most often the Otherworld is anchored in or reached through the si, the fairy mounds, or other Earthly objects. It - or they - can be reached by sailing to the west (in Irish folklore), by finding doorways often in mountainsides, or by finding doors opened into fairy hills. Entrances to Fairy exist in marshes, caves, rocks, lakes, riverbanks, underground tunnels, and even in heavy mist (Gwyndaf, 1991). In some stories getting to Fairy is as simple as stepping through a doorway, while in others it can only be reached through an arduous and difficult journey.

Reaching Fairy in the stories can be easy or quite difficult. In some tales a person has only to step through an opening in a fairy hill or into a fairy ring to find themselves in the Otherworld, while in other stories a long and complex journey is involved. In the ballad of Thomas the Rhymer, Thomas describes traveling with the Fairy Queen on her white horse through a desert, wading through rivers, going where there is neither sun nor moon, and wading through blood up to the knee to get to Fairy (Acland, 1997). In one Welsh story a midwife is taken to tend a fairy birth by riding a white horse with the father-to-be along many paths, between a cleft in a split boulder, into a cave, and a great distance through darkness (Gwyndaf, 1991). We see the passage through darkness repeated in the story 'Reinbrun', where the eponymous protagonist must pass through gates in a hillside, ride through darkness, then cross a river to reach the fairy castle that is his destination.

Joining a fairy dance can lead to a person's death, or may make years seem like a single night, but in many stories it is also a way that we see people being taken into Fairy (Briggs, 1976). One might note that this is a riskier method, and by no means a certain way to reach Fairy, and as well those taken in dancing do not always want to go. In the ballad of Childe Rowland the protagonist's sister is taken unwillingly to Fairy after going counter-clockwise around a church, and the protagonist himself obtains entry to an elfin hall by walking three times counter-clockwise around it chanting: 'Open door! Open door! And let me come in!' (Acland, 1997) This example from the ballad along with the stories about fairy rings may show us that moving counter-clockwise - what's called 'withershins' in the source material has a purpose and a power of its own that helps open the way to Fairy.

In contrast, in medieval belief the Otherworld could be reached in a person's dreams, and interactions there were as real as those in the waking world (Bitel, 1991). Indeed, it is not an uncommon belief even into the modern period that Fairy can be reached in dreams and trances and that a person can be 'away with the fairies' as the saying goes even though they are still physically present in our world. One person in Ireland about a hundred years ago said it was possible for a person to go into a trance and be with the fairies for several hours or several days, or less commonly for years (Evans-Wentz, 1911). In such cases the person afterwards might have no memory of the events they experienced, or equally likely would claim no memory because they were under a prohibition not to speak of anything they had seen while among the Other Crowd. The idea that a person can be physically in our world, but also in Fairy, possibly in spirit or perhaps in some other sense, is an old well-established one. People who were believed to be taken by the Gentry would fall into trances, sometimes able to speak and relay information, but sometimes completely lost to mortal Earth for a time (Evans-Wentz, 1911). This process of entering Fairy in trances and dreams is no less valid or real than entering the Otherworldphysically. In the past it was taken just as seriously by people. It is very important to keep this in mind if you feel you might be having dreams about Fairy, going to Fairy in your sleep, or entering Fairy in trances as you must behave as if you are really there, with all the required caution and etiquette, in order to emerge safely again.

Some people wander Fairy unwittingly while some go there intentionally. Others are taken by a member of Fairy either permanently as a spouse or servant, or else for a set temporary period, often as a servant. In the second case the person is usually returned to mortal Earth after either a year or seven years, although occasionally other periods of time are noted (Briggs, 1976). There are usually specific prohibitions relating to Fairy if one wants to return to mortal Earth again. The most common one is that you cannot eat or drink any food while there or you will be bound to stay forever. In the ballad of Thomas the Rhymer we see a different version, where Thomas must remain completely silent, or else he will be trapped forever in Fairy. In a story from Ireland of an abducted child, the fairies were not able to keep him because he had a blackberry thorn under one fingernail (Ballard, 1991). They had a prohibition on them that they must remove all Earthly things from him within three days or return him (Ballard, 1991). They took his clothes and, as the story goes, washed him thoroughly, but they were unaware of the small thorn's presence, and so when the three days were up had no choice but to bring him back. Ballard suggests that this was a symbolic removal of the boy's humanity, which the fairies had three days to complete, and because they could not remove everything - could not effectively remove all traces of mortal Earth and make the boy one of themselves - they had no choice but to return him. Excluding Thomas the Rhymer, where it seems Thomas was an exception based on the terms under which he was taken into Fairy by the Queen, the overall pattern involves changing the person or binding them to Fairy. This can be done by removing all external traces of mortal Earth - and one might assume, after three days, all internal traces as well through the normal natural processes or by having the person internalize Fairy itself by eating or drinking a substance from it, which we may suppose contains its essence.

Rescue from Fairy

There is a long tradition of people being rescued from Fairyland by those still on mortal Earth. Yeats relates a story of a policeman who rescued a girl who'd been taken, by burning all the ragwort in a field associated with the fairies. The Rev. Robert Kirk, author of The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies, was said to have been taken by the fairies and later to have appeared to a friend and said he would be seen in church on a certain day and, if his friend acted, he could be freed (Bennett, 1991). His friend failed to take the proper action at the appointed time, and Kirk was never seen again. In the ballad of Tam Lin Janet rescues Tam Lin by pulling him off a fairy horse as the Fairy Rade passes by and holding him without faltering when the Fairy Queen transforms him into a variety of fearsome things. In the ballad The Faerie Oak of Corriewater a sister tries to save her brother in a similar manner, but when he is turned in her arms to fire she panics and is killed by the flames. There were also means of freeing people from the Slua Sidhe by tossing items in the air including gloves or a knife and yelling: 'This is yours that is mine.' When we study the stories we find three main patterns emerging: gaining the return of people by threatening something the fairies value, rescue by passing trials to free them, or exchanging something else for the person. Each of these three methods has its own risks, and none comes with guarantees. Usually threatening something the fairies value means being willing to destroy those things normally held sacred by the fairies, including their trees and hills. The trials one must undergo vary, but may mean holding onto a person while they seem to change into frightening things, or sometimes finding a specific weapon and using it to kill or destroy someone or something. In the ballad Childe Rowland, for example, the protagonist must take a sword and travel to the castle where his sister is being held, beheading anyone who speaks to him; when he reaches the castle his sister greets him and he sadly kills her, only to find out that it was just a test and she is still alive. His older brothers had failed to save her and had fallen into an enchanted sleep because they could not bring themselves to kill her when she spoke.


Excerpted from "Fairies"
by .
Copyright © 2016 Morgan Daimler.
Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Imram - A Poem 1

Introduction 3

Chapter 1 Fairyland 12

Chapter 2 Basic Facts About Fairies 24

Chapter 3 The Courts and Divisions in Fairy 48

Chapter 4 The Kings and Queens 61

Chapter 5 Denizens of Fairy 74

Chapter 6 Fairies in Tradition 118

Chapter 7 Mortal Interactions 144

Chapter 8 Fairies in the Modern World 166

Chapter 9 Dealing with Fairies 188

Conclusion 217

Resources 221

Appendix A 226

Appendix B 231

Author's Note 237

Bibliography 241

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