Faeries: An Overview
|Origin of the Faeries|
|Types of Fairies|
|Origin of the Faeries|
|Fairy comes from the Old French word faerie. The word has been overused to describe a supernatural being. There is a great deal of difference in classifying a being as a fairy from the medieval literature and those from modern literature, especially those belonging to the Celtic tradition.
There are other traditions such as that found in English, German and Slavic folklores.
Today, when we think of fairies, we often visualise them as tiny, supernatural beings with wings and glowing with uncommon light in today’s children fairy tales. And they also possessed some sorts of strange magical powers, like Tinklebell in the story of Peter Pan or the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella. The modern fairies, between the 18th and 20th century, comes from oral tradition before they were transmitted into writing.
The fairies are supernatural beings that can be best described by the Greek word – daimon, which means “spirit”. They are not divinity, ie. god or goddess, in the usual sense of the word, and yet they are not mere mortal; often, it is easier to classify them as minor divinity.
However, if we look at the idea of fairies, then you would find that have been around a lot longer than everyone expects. Perhaps the earliest form of faeries can be found loosely in the mythical beings in Greek mythology, such as the nymphs, satyrs and sileni. The nymphs from ancient Greek myths can be considered as fairies and they existed as early as the time of Homer writing the Iliad and the Odyssey. Even the river gods in Greek myths can be classified as fairies. These are spirits or minor deities of nature or of the natural phenomena.
And then, there are household or guardian spirits that can be found in Roman religion and mythology, such as the penates, lares and genii.
It was during the time of Queen Elizabeth I of England, where William Shakespeare (1564-1616) had popularised fairies in English folklore, in his play Midsummer Night’s Dream, with the characters Oberon, Titania and Puck (Robin Goodfellow). Earlier than Shakespeare, Chaucer (1342-1400) mentioned that the land of Britain was filled with fairies before the time of King Arthur.
In the Arthurian legends, the divine or fairy figures also appeared in abundance. Morgan, Arthur’s half-sister, seemed to be great sorceress and healer, was often called Morgan le Fay; her nickname Fay, which means “Fairy”. And then there is this Lady of the Lake. Arthur’s wife, Guinevere, or Gwenhwyfar in the Welsh tradition, also appeared to be a fairy, as well as the sovereignty goddess. Many knights were either born from fairies or they took female fairies as their lovers. Even Merlin was only part mortal.
Then you would discover that that these images of fairies are not the only kind. There were all sorts in fairy tales and folklores. Some are benign, while others are maligned and hostile to mortals. Some were seen as fair, while others were considered ugly and monstrous to look at. They can come in all size and sizes – tall or short, fat or skinny, so there is really no clear definition of fairies may look like. Different types of fairies may also have different types of magical powers.
So, what are these fairies? Where do they come from?
To understand what they are, we should look at some of those found in Celtic mythology and other Celtic traditions. But, then you would discover that fairies are not just confined in Celtic traditions. Many cultures and civilizations have their own versions of fairies.
There are enough kinds of fairies to confuse anyone, because sometimes writers have associated one fairy with a different kind.
In Celtic religion, there was Celtic deities in Gaul (France and Belgium), Hispania (Spain) and Britannia (Britain) during the Roman occupation of these regions or provinces. But the situation changed when Christianity spread to the west and north. These deities that were worshipped before the conversion to Christianity were reduced to the status of fairies in Celtic mythology and folklore.
So in Ireland the gods in the Tuatha De Danann were degenerated to the roles of fairies (eg. Dagda and Lugh), people living under the dune mound or fabled islands, or even within underwater domains. Similar degeneration occurred with old deities in Wales, Scotland and other surviving pockets of Celtic kingdoms (such as Cornwall, Brittany and island of Man).
These earlier Celtic traditions of fairies, the former Irish or Welsh deities were also not fairies in the usual sense. They looked very much like human, in size and shape, except that they have special magical powers and they seemed eternally young, but they don’t have wings. The Dananns or their Welsh counterparts were usually seen as race of fair people. They can die just as mortals can, but their lives could last hundreds or even thousands of years.
The problem is that sometimes, the Christian authors have also turned them into beings serving the Devil, and that the fairies were actually demons. However this view is no longer shared, today.
These medieval fairies are different from the common folklore and fairy tales of today. The Tuatha de Danann is nothing like the brownie, leprechaun and goblin of these later traditions.
|Here are the list and descriptions of faeries.
Since there are many types of faeries, there will only be articles on faeries that have parallel to or has antecedents from the mythical beings of the Celtic mythology. So there won’t be many faeries that are found in this page, about fairies (eg. pixie) and goblins that appear in later folklore. I will also concentrate mainly in the Celtic regions (eg. Britain, Ireland and Brittany), ignoring Germanic and Slavic faeries.
|Originally in Irish literature, banshee actually means “woman of fairy mound” or just simply as “fairy woman”. Ban or bean meaning “woman”. The various spelling or pronounciation of the word for fairy mound referred to the Otherworldly realm, which the Irish referred to as shee, sid, sidh or sidhe.
The word banshee may have originated from East Munster, and there are many ways it can be spelt. In Irish Gaelic it could be spelt as banshie, bean sidhe and ben side. The Scottish words are ban-sith, bean-shith and bean sith. The Manx form is ben shee.
It was only in later Irish and Scottish Gaelic folklore traditions that banshee came to mean a female wraith or spirit, whose keening presages the death of person’s in the household. This banshee was tied to a person or family, sort of like an attendant fairy.
She only foretells the pending death of a person. Unlike the Breton fairy woman korrigan, the banshee doesn’t cause a person’s death with her power or curse. Related to the banshee is the Washer or Washer-woman at the Ford, known in Scottish folklore as bean sighe.
According to the Irish poet Yeats, banshee was sometimes accompanied by the Dullahan, a headless fairy coachman. It is also sometimes believed that on these occasion, the banshee is also headless. It has been reported in 1807 that one headless banshee had frightened to death two sentries stationed at James’ Park.
The banshee was sometimes seen as a young, fair woman, especially in Irish texts, while other sources from Scottish tradition described her as an old hag. Her description varied. What is common in both traditions was that banshee had long, unbound hair, and dressed in white, though, sometimes she was seen dressed in a grey cloak over a green dress. Another common tradition is that she can be heard weeping or wailing, that sounds like the keening of mourners. And because of continuous weeping, her eyes were red in colour.
In 1987, Patrica Lysaght claimed that the closest anticipation of the banshee found in Old Irish mythology was Fedelm, the seeress in the Táin Bó Cuailnge (Ulster Cycle). There is a wonderful description of her looks, how she dressed and her gifts in divination. However, I dubious of Lysaght’s claim; Fedelm she wasn’t a wraith like the banshee, but trained in Alba (name for Scotland in Gaelic).
|A Scottish version of a female vampire or a succubus. Baobhan Sith are found in Scottish Gaelic oral tradition.||
|Bean nighe was a Scottish Gaelic name for the Washer at the Ford. The Washer or Washerwoman can be found in almost every Celtic cultures. Bean nighe is just one of the different forms of the Irish banshee, a female wraith figure. In the Scottish Gaelic tradition, the washer is the harbinger of death.
According to the Scottish Gaelic tradition, the bean nighe was a woman who died at child birth. She was described as a woman dressed in green, but can be recognised by her webbed feet. The female figure that presaging death, but they were found at streams or lakes, washing bloodstained clothes of those who would die.
It was better for a person to see her first, before she sees that person. It was possible for a person to escape his or her doom, if the person was brave enough seized her breast and suck on it. The person was then protected because he or she would become a foster-child of this female wraith.
Earlier Irish and Welsh legends, the Washer at the Ford only bore superficial resemblance to the Scottish bean nighe. The earlier washing women in early Irish and Welsh traditions were goddesses, and bean nighe were probably derived from these figures. These antecedent of the bean nighe are the Irish goddess Morrigan and the Welsh goddess Modron.
In the Irish myth, Dagda met such woman washing at the ford of the River Unshin, near Glenn Etin on Samhain night. This lovely woman was beautiful. This was not presaging of Dagda’s doom. Dagda slept with her, and she offered to aid him in the coming battle. Though the name of this woman was not given, she was most likely to be Morrigan, or Badb. Here, she foretold the defeat of the Fomorians. But that was not only the purpose of Morrigan. Morrigan represented the Sovereignty of Ireland. For Ireland to enjoy its wealth and fertility, it required a king to have sex with the Sovereignty Goddess (or Lady) of Ireland. For Ireland to renew its prosperity and the fertility of the land, Dagda was required to sleep with Morrigan each year on Samhain night. See Wedded to the Land in Celtic World.
In Welsh tradition, this washer was Modron, the great goddess and the mother of Mabon. She was no figure presaging the fate of a person. Modron was doomed to wash at Rhyd y Gyfarthfa or the “Ford of Barking”, until a Christian break the curse she has being under, by sleeping with her and fathering a son. This Christian was the great king from the North, named Urien Rheged. Her son by this Christian was Owain, a hero known in the Arthurian legend as Yvain or Ywain.
|In Scottish Gaelic folklore, the brownie was household elf, who would make sure their home was tidy at night, while the family are sleeping.
Failing to reward the brownie for his service, would result in either the brownie leaving the household or at worse, mischievously causing havoc in the house, such as breaking dishes, spoiling milk, and chasing away cattle or other animals from the property.
The brownie is comparable to the German kobold, which pretty much had the same function as the brownie.
|According to folklore, a fairy would secretly exchange a mortal infant with that of the fairy kind. The fairy baby was called changeling. Sometimes, the stolen babies were returned to the families, especially when a person can expose the true nature of the changeling. The changeling existed in all folklore and fairy tales.
In Scottish Gaelic tradition, the changeling was called tàcharan or umaidh. In Irish folklore, it is corpán sidhe, síodhbradh or síofra; and in Manx it is Ihianoo shee. The Welsh called them plentyn a neidiwyd am arall.
Usually the fairy babies were sickly. One way to recognise them is to place them on a fire and chant a formula. If it is a changeling, it would leave, climbing up the chimney.
According to Yeats, the stolen baby will live in a place of full “good living and music and mirth”.
So far, in Celtic mythology I have come across mortal babies being stolen by fairies, but not replaced with fairy infants.
|The headless phantom coachman, who drive a black coach, known as coach-a-bower (cóiste-bodhar), sometimes drawn by headless horses. In the coach, there is a coffin; Thomas Crofton Croker called it the Death Cart. The Dullahan were usually accompanied by the banshee, wailing as if in the funeral. Sometimes, this banshee is also headless. In other tradition, the Dullahan doesn’t ride in a coach, but ride a headless horse.
If a person opened a door, when he or she hears a coach rumbling by, that person may have a pitcherful of blood thrown onto the person’s face. That person is therefore marked for death.
It seemed that dullahan can take off or put on his head at will. The dullahan may even toss his head around like in a gruesome ballgame. Those who watch him pass may lose their eye to his whip. According to Yeats, the cracking of whip is the omen of death.
There are antecedent to headless phantom or person are scattered throughout older Celtic literature. The best known was Curoi (or Cu Roi), a king of Munster, who was involved in a beheading games with three Ulster’s champions in the tale of Fled Bricrenn (Feast of Bricriu). A similar beheading tale is found in Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
|The elf or alf was derived from Teutonic origin. Description of the elves varied from author to author and from one period to another. The elves were introduced into the Celtic folklore in the later tradition.
According to the Norse myths, there are two groups or tribes of elves.
The light-elves, known as ljásálfar, lived in the world called Alfheim, which the Vanir god Freyr ruled. The light-elves were seen as fair. The other group of elves were the dark-elves, dokkálfar, living in Nidavellir, or black elves, svartálfar, living in the world called Svartalfheim. There seemed to be a difference between dark-elves and black elves. The dark elves were described with complexion – black than night – and they were short like the dwarves. The dark elves like the dwarves were known for their invention and craftsmanship.
To the Norse tradition, the elves were spirits or minor deities of the woodland or household. See Of Dwarves and Elves in the Norse Mythology section. In later Germanic folklore, the elves had changed – becoming diminutive in size, like the Celtic counterpart of the fairies.
It was this tradition as household spirits, that the elves were later given in Germanic and Celtic folklore traditions. The closest thing that the Celtic people had to the elves were the ellyll from Welsh tradition.
They were short or tiny, and can be seen as benevolent if pleased, so they would care for the house, doing chores in the night. If they were offended they can become malevolent, disrupting the household, by breaking dishes, spilling milk, keeping the occupants awake at night with their noises, chasing away livestock.
These elves were degenerated into the kobold in Germanic folklore, or in the Scottish Gaelic folklore as the brownie.
|The Fool (Amandán)|
|The Fool known in Irish and Scottish Gaelic as Amandán is a social fairy. They are sometimes seen wiser than their masters.
According to W. B. Yeats, the Great Fool, or Amandán Már, resides in the fairy palace. In Yeats’ description of The Queen and The Fool, the fairy queen and the fool in the royal household have great powers.
It was better to avoid these two figures in the palace, because their touch can cause paralytic seizure or even death to any mortal. This touch is known as poc sídhe or the “fairy stroke”. The stroke is an English medical term for the cerebral hemorrhage. The Fool is to be especially avoided on the month of June.
|Just like the names fairy and elf, goblin has different meaning and different usage for different people. Only several creatures are seen as goblins in Celtic folklore. But goblin is probably not the right description. Some goblins can appeared benevolent, while others are mischievous or malevolent creatures.
In Irish folklore, the dullahan and cluricaune were considered to be goblins. And so was the Welsh bwgan.
In Irish myth about Finn Mac Cumhaill, there is Aillén Mac Midgna, better known as Aillén the Burner, who was considered to be a goblin. On Samhain-eve, Aillén would come playing his harp, whose melody would put everyone to sleep, where he could cause part of destruction of Tara. There was no description of what he looked like. See Fenian Cycle.
|The most common female fairies in the Breton tradition are the korrigans that resided in the woods, especially at Broceliande, often near a stream, spring or fountain. She was fairy that seeks a mortal lover.
The korrigan seemed to be Breton version of the banshee. The korrigan was probably a pagan druidess originally. She was equated with gwragedd annwn – the Welsh fairies of the lake and streams.
She tried to seduce mortal who would drink from her water, she would lure him to sleep with her. If the man refused her advance or seduction, she would angrily curse him to a doom. This is what happened to the Seigneur of Nann.
The Seigneur was married to a woman whom he loved. One day, his wife asked for some May-blossoms from the forest. The Seigneur rode out, but during his ride, he became thirsty, and drank the water from a fountain. Here, the Seigneur encountered the korrigan who demanded that he sleep with her. But the Seigneur angrily refused because he was faithful to his wife and rode away after hearing that he would die in three days. The moment the Seigneur rode back to his castle, he went immediately to the church, instead of back to his wife. The priest, his mother and other people kept the secret of his fate from his wife. Three days later, the Seigneur’s mother finally told her daughter-in-law the truth. The wife died of broken heart and was buried beside the Seigneur.
In Breton folklore, she was the most likely suspect in the abduction of mortal infants. As foster-mother of the baby, she would raise it as if the child was her own.
The korrigan has been compared to several figures in mythology and legend. These were most likely antecedents of the korrigan. One of them is the Welsh goddess Ceridwen (or Keridwen). She was wife of the giant Tegid Foel and reside Lake Tegid.
There are two other notable antecedents to the korrigan, but within the Arthurian legend, where they reside either near a fountain or within the lake itself at Broceliande. They are the Countess or Lady of the Fountain, and the Lady of the Lake.
The korrigan was sort of like the Lady of the Fountain in the legend of Welsh Owain or French Yvain. Though the Welsh version in the Mabinogion doesn’t disclose the name of forest or the fountain, Chretien de Troyes had located fountain in the forest of Broceliande.
Owain or Yvain actually married the Lady of the Fountain after slaying her husband. Though the hero wasn’t doomed to die, he lost his wit because a damsel removed the wedding ring from his finger, because he forgot to return to his wife after one year’s sojourn in King Arthur’s court. He roamed the forest as a naked wild man. Eventually his wits was restored and he was reunited with his wife, after many heroic adventures.
The Lady of the Fountain didn’t seem to have any special power like korrigan, but she was lady of otherworldly castle and her fountain have strange power over the weather. See Yvain and the Lady of the Fountain.
The Lady of the Lake is known by several names – Niniane, Viviane, Vivian, Vivien, Eviene and Nimue. Whatever her original name was, by the time of Chretien de Troyes (died in c. 1185), she was seen more of a fairy than a goddess.
The Lady of the Lake exhibited the closest characteristics to the korrigan, but the Lady was more benevolent than the korrigans. The Lady of the Lake was responsible for giving the sword Exicalibur to King Arthur (see Legend of Excalibur, New Sword). She abducted the infant from Queen Elaine (or Helen) of Banoic and raised the infant Lancelot to manhood. She was Lancelot’s tutor. (See Lancelot.)
But most interesting is the Lady of the Lake connection with Merlin, Arthur’s wizard and counsellor. Merlin was infatuated with the lovely Lady of the Lake. Though, Merlin was gifted with divination, he was helpless to prevent his doom. He taught her all his skill in magic in the hope of winning her love, which included hiding her palace and domain either under the lake or in illusionary lake. But Lady of the Lake had no intention of sleeping with the wizard, and she used the last magic he had taught her, to confine or entomb Merlin in or under the large stone. (See Legend of Excalibur, Death of Merlin.)
Both the Lady of the Fountain and the Lady of the Lake were thought to be originally goddesses of the water. And due to the connection of these lady to a bodies of water within the forest of Broceliande, there is a striking resemblance to the korrigans.
|Of all the fairies people, the one that most people today are familiar with is the leprechaun. However, the leprechaun statuettes that we see in people’s garden, have being seriously misrepresented.
In Irish folklore, the leprechaun was one of the best known male solitary fairy. They have a lot in common with two other male solitary fairies – cluricaune and far darrig. Like these other two fairies, they are mischievous and known for playing practical jokes upon mortals.
The leprachaun could be spelt lepracaun. In Irish, it is leith bhrogan or leith phrogan.
They dressed in a homely style clothes that looks very ordinary compared to other solitary fairies. The leprechaun was a tiny male figure, with an old, withered face. He was the shoemaker. Yeats says that he was one-shoemaker, because he was only seen making a single shoe.
They also have hidden many treasure-crocks
Most of the tales about leprechaun can be found in Thomas Crofton Croker’s Fairy Legends and Traditions and Lady Wilde’s Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland.
|Pooka or púca was a shape shifting creature. Depending on the writers, the pooka was either benevolent or malevolent fairy. They were often identify with pwca of Welsh tradition.
According to Yeats, whom he listed T. C. Croker as one of his sources, the pooka was either mischievous or malevolent, often taking the shape of horse, offering unsuspecting traveller a ride that was dangerous if not deadly. Other shape it favoured is the ass.
Yeats says that Lady Wilde believed that the pooka was benevolent and helpful like the Scottish brownie.
They appeared most frequently on Novemeber Eve (night of October 31), which is Samhain eve (or the moderen Halloween), in which the pooka would spoil blackberry.