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A host of supernatural beings and spirits who exist between earth and heaven. Both good and evil, fairies have been associated with witches. During the witch hunts in Europe and the British Isles, accused witches often sought to save their lives by claiming they were taught their witch arts by fairies, which seemed less malevolent than if they had been taught by the Devil. For the most part, fairies have remained in a category of their own, though when convenient, the clergy allied them with the Devil.
Belief in fairies is universal and ancient and is especially strong in Europe and the British Isles. Fairies come in all shapes and sizes and are known by scores of names, among them in Western lore brownie, elf, dwarf, troll, gnome, pooka, kobold, leprechaun and banshee. In the colonization of America, fairy beliefs were transported across the Atlantic, where they survived in the Appalachians, the Ozarks and other remote mountainous areas.
The word fairy comes from the Latin term, fata, or “fate.” The Fates were supernatural women who liked to visit newborn children. The archaic English term for fairy is fay, which means enchanted or bewitched; the state of enchantment is fayerie, which gradually became faerie
There are four principal proposed origins of fairies:
1. Fairies are the souls of the pagan dead. Being unbaptized, the shades, or souls, are caught in a netherworld and are not bad enough to descend into hell nor good enough to rise into heaven.
2. Fairies are fallen angels. When God cast Lucifer from heaven, the angels who were loyal to Lucifer plunged down toward hell with him. But God raised his hand and stopped them in midflight, condemning them to remain where they were. Some were in the air, some in the earth and some in the seas and rivers. This belief is widespread in the lore of Ireland, Scotland and Scandinavia.
3. Fairies are nature spirits. Fairies are among the many spirits that populate all things and places on the planet.
4. Fairies are diminutive human beings. Evidence exists that small-statured races populated parts of Europe and the British Isles in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, before the spread of the Celts. In Ireland a mythical race called the Tuatha de Danaan lived in barrows and in shelters burrowed under hills and mounds. They were shy and hard-working, and, as stronger races invaded and conquered with their
iron weapons, they retreated into the woodlands to live secretive lives. They were pagan and continued to worship pagan deities. They were close to nature and had keen psychic senses. Some were skilled in metals and mining, and some were herdsmen, keeping stocks of diminutive cattle and horses. Some maintained a guerilla warfare against invaders. The legends of Robin Hood and Rob Roy may
be related to fairy lore.
The elusive fairy races were regarded with suspicion and superstition by the larger races and gradually became endowed in popular belief with magical attributes and characteristics. These races, such as the Lapps, Picts and Romano-British-Iberian peoples, were not so small as to be unable to mingle with the Celts, Normans and Saxons. Many were made into servants and serfs, while some married and mixed bloodlines. Prior to the 13th century, having fairy blood was admired.
Of the four main ideas, the latter two may be most likely: the small races became identified as fairies and were ascribed the supernatural abilities and characteristics of nature spirits in lore.
Fairy lore. Physical characteristics of fairies vary. Some are tiny, winged, gossamer creatures a few inches tall who can alight on a drop of water and barely make it tremble. Some are dwarfs and “little people” barely smaller than mortals. Others are giants. Fairies are both ugly and beautiful. They are usually mischievous and unpredictable and must be placated by gifts of food and spotlessly clean houses. The superstitious refer to them as “the good people” or “the good neighbors” in order to stay in the fairies’ good graces.
When won over by a mortal, fairies may be very generous
with gifts, either material or psychic such as clairvoyance
or the ability to heal. Some are evil and malevolent.
Many are lascivious and enjoy seducing mortals; some
even marry mortals. In general, it is considered bad luck
to talk about fairies and their activities. To do so invites a
beating from them and the instantaneous disappearance
of all the gifts bestowed by the fairies, such as wealth
and possessions, and even the fairy lovers or spouses
Fairies are nocturnal creatures and like to drink,
dance and sing. Their music is exquisite. Their color is
green, which is also identified with witches. Green clothing
perhaps helps them to blend into their forests; some
are said to have green skin. They keep many animals,
including dogs, cattle and sheep, which usually are red
and white in color, but they do not keep cats or fowl. In
Irish folklore, cats are regarded as fairies, generally as evil
ones. The crowing of cocks drives away fairies, as well as
witches and demons.
Like the Fates, fairies love to visit the newborn babies
of mortals and will not hesitate to steal those that are
unbaptized, or “little pagans,” substituting in their place
changelings—wizened fairy children. Fairies particularly
desire fair-haired children, to improve their own hairy
stock. To protect infants against kidnapping by fairies,
an open pair of iron scissors traditionally was hung over
them in the cradle—for iron is believed to repel fairies—
or an iron pin was stuck in their clothes. Other measures
included laying the trousers of the child’s father across the
cradle; drawing a circle of fire around the cradle; making
a sign of the cross over the child; sprinkling it and the
cradle with holy water; and giving it a nickname. The latter
relates to beliefs in the magic power of names (see
names of power). If fairies do not know the true name
of a child, they will not be able to cast a magical spell
over it. In lore, witches were said to collude with fairies
to steal babies or children for money, infants who were
ugly, retarded or unruly were written off as changelings.
It was believed that the changelings could be induced to
confess if they were set afire, and many babies may have
died that way.
In the early Middle Ages, fairies were said to be visible
to all. As time went on, they acquired more and more
supernatural powers and became invisible to all but those
with second sight. Fairies who were captured by mortals
were said to pine away and die quickly if they could not
escape. Mortals who visited Fairyland, an enchanted land
beneath the ground, discovered that time passes very
slowly for fairies: what seemed like a few days translated
into years when the mortals returned to the physical
Some fairies were said to suck human blood like vampires.
On the Isle of Man, it was believed that if water
was not left out for them, they would suck the blood of
the sleepers in the house or bleed them and make a cake
with the blood. The fairies would then leave some of the
blood cake hidden in the house; it had to be found and
given to the sleepers to eat, or they would die of a sleeping
sickness. (See Horned Women for a description of blood
cakes attributed to witches.)
Fairies and witches. According to British anthropologist
Margaret A. Murray and others, real “little people” gradually
became identified with witches. In the 16th and 17th
centuries, when fairy beliefs were at their height, fairies
and witches were often blended together. Both could cast
and break spells, heal people and divine lost objects and
the future. Both danced and sang beneath a full moon—
often together—and trafficked with the Devil. Both could
change shape, fly, levitate and cause others to levitate (see
metamorphosis; flying; levitation). Both stole unbaptized
children and poisoned people. Both stole horses
at night and rode them hard to their sabbats, returning
them exhausted by dawn. Both avoided Salt and both
were repelled by iron. James I of England, in Daemonologie,
his book about witches, called Diana, the goddess of
witches, the “Queen of Faerie.” Oberon, the name of the
King of Fairies, was also the name of a demon summoned
by magicians. Fairies were said to be the familiars of
witches. It is no surprise, then, that fairies figured in numerous
witch trials. Those richest in detail took place in
the British Isles.
In 1566 John Walsh of Dorset was accused of witchcraft.
He admitted being able to tell if a person was bewitched,
a gift bestowed upon him partly by fairies, he said. The
fairies, he claimed, lived in great heaps of earth in Dorsetshire
and could be consulted for one hour, at either noon or
midnight. Walsh also defined three kinds of fairies: green,
white and black, and said the black were the worst.
Bessy Dunlop, a wise woman healer of Ayrshire, was
accused of witchcraft and sorcery on November 8, 1576,
She suddenly became a successful herbalist and healer and
gained second sight, which helped her predict the recovery
or death of patients and the location of lost objects.
In her trial, Dunlop testified that she had been taught
these abilities by a phantom fairy named Thorne or
Thome Reid. Reid told her that he had been ordered to
be her attendant by the Queen of Elfhane. Many years
before, when Dunlop was in childbirth, the Queen appeared
before her as a stout woman, asked for a drink and
was given one. Reid explained to Dunlop that afterwards,
he had been killed in the battle of Pinkie on September
10, 1547, and had gone to Fairyland. He now served the
Queen of Elfhane.
The ghostly Reid appeared many times before Dunlop,
beseeching her to go away with him to Fairyland
or to deny the Christian faith, in exchange for which he
would grant her every wish. She denied him repeatedly,
she testified. One day, Reid appeared with a company of
eight women and four men. Reid explained that they were
“good wights” (fairies) who lived in Elfland. They asked
Dunlop to accompany them. When Dunlop remained silent,
they left “with a hideous ugly howling sound, like
that of a hurricane.”
Reid continued to visit Dunlop, offering his assistance
in healing sick animals and people. Eventually, he gave
her herbal ointments and taught her how to use them and
predict their effectiveness.
Dunlop would see Reid in town from time to time,
though he remained invisible to others. He always appeared
if she summoned him thrice. On every occasion,
he begged her to come with him to Fairyland, sometimes
tugging at her apron, but she always refused, which sometimes
put him in an ill humor.
These supernatural visits went on for four years before
Dunlop was brought down on charges of witchcraft. The
fact that Dunlop had always used her new skills for good
did not help her case; neither did her testimony that her
benefactor was a fairy and not the Devil. Dunlop was convicted
and burned at the stake.
A few years later, in 1588, Alison Pearson of Byrehill
was charged with invoking the spirits of the Devil. She
also was said to have a fairy familiar: her cousin, William
Sympson, a physician who had been kidnapped by
a Gypsy and had died. One day while Pearson was traveling,
she felt ill and lay down. A green man (Sympson)
appeared and said he would do her good if she would be
faithful to him. The green man vanished and reappeared
with a band of fairies, who cajoled Pearson into accompanying
them and taking part in their drinking and
Pearson gradually became comfortable with her fairy
friends. If she talked about their activities, however, she
was tormented with blows that left insensitive spots on
her skin. Sympson advised her of when the fairies were
coming to her and of the fact that they usually arrived in
a whirlwind. Sympson also taught her how to use herbal
remedies and told her that every year, the Devil took onetenth
of the fairies away to hell as a tithe.
Like Dunlop, Pearson’s confession only worsened her
case. She also was convicted and burned.
Isobel Gowdie, Scotland’s renowned witch who voluntarily
confessed in 1662, said she had frequent doings
with fairies. Gowdie went often to Fairyland, entering
through various caverns and mounds. The entrance of
Fairyland was populated with elf-bulls, whose “roaring
and skoilling” always frightened her. She often met with
the King and Queen of Fairy, who were finely dressed and
offered her more meat than she could eat. Gowdie, her
fellow witches and the fairies would amuse themselves by
A queen meets the Lion Fairy (From the fairy tale “The
Frog and the Lion Fairy” in Andrew Lang’s The
Orange Fairy Book)
Gowdie said the fairies manufactured their poisonous
elf-arrow heads (see elf arrows) in their caverns, and
she had seen the Devil working alongside them, putting
the finishing touches on the flints. Fairies taught her how
to fly, by mounting cornstraws and beanstalks and crying,
“Horse and Hattock, in the Devil’s name!”
As late as 1894 beliefs in fairies and witches in Ireland
caused the murder of Bridget Cleary of Clonmel, who
was accused by her own husband and family of being a
changeling wife. The trials of Michael Cleary and Bridget’s
relatives were Ireland’s last involving witchcraft (see
Fairy Witch of Clonmel).
Many contemporary Witches believe in fairies and
some see them clairvoyantly. Some Witches say their
Craft was passed down from fairies through the generations
of their families.