Faeries are not fairies.
Fairies, generally speaking, are known in folklore as playful and delicately winged pixies—wee folk, good folk, fair folk.
Faeries are not. They are elementals, similar to stereotypical ghosts rising from graveyards. As such, they belong to a realm not safe for human beings. Strange events—even madness—may result from encounters. Although not all faeries are dangerous, they may be willful and vindictive, easily angered, and quick to take offense. Some are downright deadly.
Stunning and beneficent, or terrible and hideous, they walk among the living, exacting vengeance or providing protection—for a price. Usually gold, or the life of a loved one.
What are they?
The word faerie means “realm of the fae.” It comes from the Old French faierie, meaning “the fates.” In Old French romance, a faie was a woman skilled in magic.
Collectively, they are known as “the fae.” The term applies both to what they are physically as well as who they are culturally.
According to the Judeo-Christian tradition, the fae are the fallen angels who took no sides during Lucifer’s rebellion between God and Lucifer. Some say they were banished to Limbo; others, to the darkest and most remote places of the earth.
Mythologists, however, contend they are the aes sídhe, the people of the mounds. They are the descendants of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the supernaturals who defeated the Fomorri and Fir Bog, only to be defeated by the Milesians, the first Celts in Ireland.
The Milesians offered to equally divide Ireland with the Tuatha Dé Danann, if they were allowed to stake their claim first. The Tuatha agreed, and the Milesians chose the portion above ground. That relegated the Tuatha Dé Danann to the underground.
Into sídhes, or burial mounds, went the defeated, taking with them all their sorcery and knowledge. Banished to live out of sight, they became the aes sídhe, the people of the burial mounds, the faeries.
Infringing on their sacred mounds will cause the aes sídhe to retaliate. The goal of many a Celtic ritual, in fact, is to appease them.
Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865 – 1939) believed in faeries—not in the abstract, but as real creatures. He collected the folklore of Ireland directly from children and old men, because, he wrote in the introduction to Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, they were not pressured by “mere daylight existence. … The old women are most learned, but will not so readily be got to talk, for the faeries are very secretive, and much resent being talked of.”
Yeats divided faeries into two categories:
- Trooping Faeries, who live in communities, known for singing and dancing, and may or may not be friendly to humans; and
- Solitary Faeries, who live on their own. They are likely to be harmful.
Leprechauns are solitary faeries (or goblins) who rarely appear in Irish mythology and only became prominent in later folklore. More akin to Germanic dwarves, they are small and agile males who guard hidden treasures, usually pots of gold. They are related to clurichauns, who have been described as leprechauns on a drinking binge.
Very sociable beings, grogochs are smelly, half-human and half-faerie aborigines found in the north. Resembling small elderly men, they are covered in coarse, reddish hair, along with twigs and dirt. Impervious to searing heat or freezing cold, they live in caves or hollows.
Although they have the power of invisibility, their stench will give them away. They may allow trusted people to see them and may even help with domestic chores, for no payment other than a jug of cream.
Am Fear Liath Mòr (The Big Grey Man)
Although no one has seen the Big Grey Man, he allegedly is dark, very thin, and over ten feet tall with broad shoulders and long arms. Cloaked in mist and fog, this solitary faery confuses people and causes them to become lost or even to wander off a cliff. He is a dangerous entity who hates humans and takes great delight in causing death and misery.
Encounters are limited to the sound of crunching gravel as he walks behind climbers. He has an extremely powerful psychic effect, described as a feeling of overwhelming fear, apprehension, and panic that leads to suicidal thoughts or physical flight. Sometimes the footsteps are accompanied by a resonant and yet completely incomprehensible voice that seems to be faintly Gaelic in nature.
Swamp gas is often the explanation for phosphorescent balls of light that appear over bogs at twilight. These glimmering spirits are the sheerie—tiny, elf-like beings with the faces of small children. They are believed to be the souls of unborn children trying to return to the mortal world.
Sometimes called “corpse candles,” they may lure a traveler into thinking the lights are people with lanterns or well-lit homes. Instead, unsuspecting travelers land in a bog hole or watery grave.
Sheerie are solitary and jealous harbingers of misery. With shrill, high-pitched voices, they cause madness, confusion, and death.
Pookas are shapeshifters that take on the appearance of horses, goats, cats, dogs, hares, and humans, though typically, a pooka is a sleek, dark horse with sulphureous yellow eyes and a long, wild mane. Empowered with human speech, he may be menacing, mischievous, or even beneficial.
In Fairy Mythology, Thomas Keightley describes them as “wicked-minded, black-looking, bad things … that would come in the form of wild colts, with chains hanging about them” and harm unwary travelers.
On the other hand, a pooka may be simply mischievous, appearing as a gentle horse who takes people on terrifying rides before dropping them back where they were taken from.
Merrows are mermaids. Beautiful and promiscuous, with long silky hair and glistening scales on their flat feet and webbed fingers, they live in Tir fo Thoinn (the Land beneath the Waves). Sailors and fishermen find these sea faeries irresistible.
Endowed with beauty and wealth (with fortunes of gold plundered from shipwrecks), merrows make excellent wives. In fact, they prefer human men to mermen, who are exceptionally ugly with scaley, pig-like features and long, pointed teeth. But men are warned against this. As members of the aes sídhe, merrow have a natural antipathy towards humans. In some parts of Ireland, they are regarded as messengers of doom and death.
Merrows have special clothing to enable them to travel through ocean currents. In the south, it is described as a small red cap made from feathers. In the north, it is a sealskin cloak. In either case, the merrow must abandon it in order to come ashore. And she cannot return to the sea without it.
A man who finds this clothing has power over the merrow, so a fisherman may persuade her to marry him. Such brides are often extremely wealthy. Eventually, the merrow will recover her clothing, however, and return to the sea, leaving husband and children behind.
A handsome incubus-like faery with black eyes and no shadow, the gancanagh appears in a mist to an unsuspecting maiden as the embodiment of her perfect lover. After seducing her, he abandons her to waste away and die from a broken heart. Although he can be banished by the sign of the cross, it is too late for the woman who kissed him.
The Dullahan, meaning “dark man,” is the headless horseman. Carrying his head under one arm, he rides a black horse with flaming eyes,. When he stops riding, a human dies.
Some versions of this legend say that the Dullahan throws buckets of blood at people he passes, while others say he simply calls out the name of the mortal that will soon die.
He is usually associated with Washington Irving’s 1820 story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” which is considered one of America’s first ghost stories—and one of its scariest. It is a tale of being haunted by a past that stalks us so that we never forget it.
Banshee means “a woman of the fairy mound.” She heralds the death of a family member by wailing, shrieking, or keening. Descriptions vary, from an ugly old hag to a beautiful young woman. But all agree that her blood curdling wail will be heard three times before someone dies.
When the person is far away and news of the death has not yet come, her wailing is the first warning. She will also scream if someone is about to enter a situation in which it is unlikely he or she will come out alive.
A changeling is a faery exchanged with a child, either to replace a faery, to procure a servant, or simply out of malice. In some cases, a faery elder might be swapped with a human baby so that the old faery can live in comfort, coddled by its human parents.
Faeries may also take adult humans, especially newlyweds, to marry faeries, or new mothers to nurse faery babies. In such instances, an object such as a log is left in place of the stolen human, enchanted to look like the person. This object will appear to sicken and die. Meanwhile, the human lives as a captive among the faeries.
Although reported to have ravenous appetites, changelings typically appear sickly and do not grow like normal children. They may have strange physical characteristics, such as beards or long teeth, or exhibit intelligence far beyond their apparent years and possess uncanny insight.
Some people believe that the frequent citings of the changelings’ ravenous appetite indicate that the parents of these unfortunate children saw them as a threat to the sustenance of the entire family. Infanticide may have been the solution.
Mythology offers many ways for humans to defend ourselves from faeries.
- Enchantments: religious symbols, holy water, placing mirrors throughout your home
- Protective charms: salt, four-leaf clovers, St. John’s wort, wearing clothing inside out, scattering primrose petals outside your door, and wearing daisies and forget-me-nots
- Metallic objects, especially iron: carrying a nail in your pocket, ringing iron bells, horseshoes
- Offerings: cream, butter, beer and bread
One final word: Beware!