fairy, fairies, faery [L fāta; OFr. faerie]. The diminutive, supernatural beings in human form are frequently depicted in all modern Celtic traditions. In common with counter-parts in other European traditions, Celtic fairies may be seen as clever, mischievous, and capable of assisting or harassing human endeavour. Discussion in English of such phenomena is hampered by an often indiscriminate use of the word ‘fairy’ to translate dozens of more precise terms from Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Manx, Welsh, Cornish, and Breton. More confusingly, ‘fairy’ has sometimes been used to describe (and implicitly to dismiss) many characters from ancient Celtic myth, legend, saga, and folklore. Yet the first citations of fairy lore appear in the writings of the learned elite, such as Giraldus Cambrensis (c.1146–1223). These are few, however, and the great bulk of fairy lore was recorded in oral tradition in modern times. Although there is a quasi-orthodoxy in the portrayal of fairies, much in Celtic conceptions bears a striking resemblance to those found in English, Scandinavian (e.g. hulda-fólk), and Continental traditions. The lack of a single shared term for fairy implies the lack of a singular, discrete Celtic tradition: Ir. sídheog (unreformed), síóg (reformed), sheogue (anglicized), boctogaí; ScG s'thiche; Manx ferrish; W y tylwyth teg [W, fair family]; Corn. spyrys [Corn., spirit]; Bret. korriganez, boudig. Out of courtesy the fairy may also be known by a number of euphemisms: Ir. daoine maithe [good people], daoine sídhe, áes sídhe/aos sí [people of the mound], daoine uaisle [the noble people, gentry], bunadh na croc/bunadh na gcnoc [host/stock of the hills], bunadh beag na farraige [wee folk of the sea]; ScG daoine s'th [people of the mound]; Manx ny guillyn beggey [the little boys], ny mooinjer veggey [the little kindred], ny sleih veggey [the little people]; W bendith y mamau [W, mother's blessings]; Corn. an bobel vyghan [the little people].
Celtic conceptions of fairies, which approach an orthodoxy, depict diminutive or pygmy persons. Fairies are often invisible or can become so at will, often by donning a magical cap. They prefer to live underground, especially under a hill, in a cave or burrow, or in a heap of stones, such as the raths of Ireland. Their preferred colour is green, not only for dress but sometimes for skin and hair as well; at other times they may favour the palest of whites. Fairies are not generally malevolent or harmful, but they are feared as abductors of children and as administrators of the fairy stroke, which may render the victim speechless; the colloquial use of the word ‘stroke’ for cerebral haemorrhage alludes to this once widespread belief. If affronted, a fairy will retaliate with resolute vengeance; common fairy punishments are burning houses and despoiling crops. Some of their mischievous pranks are only tenuously linked to human provocations; these include curdling milk or milking cows in the field, snatching unwatched food, and soiling clothes left out to dry. Often fairies are seen as benevolent, taking money or food to give to the poor, providing toys for children, or counteracting the spells cast by witches.
Great distinction is made between solitary and social fairies, although the first commentators to note it were W. B. Yeats (1888) and James MacDougall (1910). The solitary fairy may elect to wear red, brown, or grey instead of the customary green. He or she avoids large gatherings and prefers to be left by himself or herself, disdaining the unbridled gaiety of social or trooping fairies. The solitary fairy is often associated with a specific household, place, or occupation, notably the shoemaking leprechaun of Ireland. According to many stories the solitary fairy appears ominous to mortals and is easily irritated. None the less, such a fairy is not indifferent to human kind, and is more likely to interact with lives of men, women, or children. Solitary fairies generously lavish gifts upon mortals, but the consequences of accepting them may be dire. Faithful but suspicious Christians have accused solitary fairies of being in league with the devil, a perception not widely shared; such fairies, however, may be on close terms with death. Among those fairies classed as solitary are the banshee, baobhan sith, brownie, bwci, cadineag, caoineag, caointeag, cluricaune, dooiney marrey, dooiney oie, dullahan, ellyll, fairy lover [Ir. leannán sídhe/sí], fenodyree, fr'de/fridean, glaistig, gruagach, leprechaun, piskie, pooka, pwca, síabraid, s'thich.
In defining the two divisions W. B. Yeats (1888) introduced the term ‘trooping fairies’ for those perceived to be in groups; they may also be known as social fairies, the sociable fairies, the fairy nation, or the fairy race. Although they may be friendly or sinister to humans, they are described as dancing and singing while in each other's company. Mortals may eavesdrop upon this celebration by entering a fairy mound [Ir. sídh/sí] or may find the evidence from fairy rings, e.g. circular tracks left in grass or flower beds. Trooping fairies prefer green to other colours and may range more widely in size than the solitary; some may be so tiny as to have caps the size of heather bells while others may be large enough to have intercourse with humans. Although they may have higher spirits than the solitary fairies, they still may present a threat to mortals; especially to be feared is the fearsome Scottish Gaelic sluagh, the host of unforgiving dead.
Fairyland, always perceived to embrace an enormous host, is always a monarchy, with queens, ruling without consort, appearing more often than mateless kings. Among the queens are Aíbell, Aacute;ine (1), Clídna, and Grian; Queen Medb of the Táin Bó Cuailnge [Cattle Raid of Cooley] becomes a fairy queen in oral tradition. Leading kings include Cuilenn and Gwyn ap Nudd; Midir, a character from Old Irish literature, becomes a fairy king in oral tradition. Some fairy monarchs are married couples, such as King Finnbheara and Queen Uacute;na, Iubdán and Bebo. In many respects the realm of the fairy seems heavenly or elysian. Time appears not to exist in fairyland, and neither is there any ugliness, sickness, age, or death. Mortals taken to fairyland may pass as much as 900 years there, thinking it only one night. Although no one dies in fairyland there appears to be a fairy birth, as there are many stories of fairy infants and children who require mortal mothers to nurse them. Fairy palaces (see Ir. BRUG; SÍDH/SÍ) are thought to be lavishly decorated in gold and silver, where the residents and their guests spend much time consuming immense banquets of the richest, most delicious food. Much time is given to dancing and music. Fairies favour two domestic animals, the dog and the horse, although fearful dogs and cats are sometimes ascribed fairy powers (see FAIRY CAT; FAIRY DOG). Fairies ride in procession on their white horses, their manes braided and decorated with tinkling silver bells. See also GWLAD Y TYLWYTH TEG; MAG MELL; OTHER-WORLD; TÍR NA MBAN; TÍR NA NÓG.
Although it was never the challenge to Christianity that witchcraft was and never accumulated a dogma, liturgy, or priesthood, the fairy faith was once far more than the literary conceit and narrative device it has been in recent times. Individual Christian clergymen offered accommodating rationales for lay adherence to fairy beliefs and practices. One was to suggest that fairies were descended from pre-Adamic beings or that fairies, who lacked human souls, might escort the souls of the faithful departed to the gates of heaven. Occasional clerical condemnation of fairy belief seems to be at the root of the thesis that fairies must pay a yearly tribute of their own children to the lords of hell. To spare their own children, fairies were thought to seek out human infants, especially the unbaptized. When mortal children were snatched for tribute, fairies would leave their own as substitutes; these ‘changelings’ were thought to bear a slight outward resemblance to the stolen child but were paler, more sickly, and more irritable. In the nineteenth century roads in Ireland were rerouted to avoid disturbing fairy mounds. Belief in fairies was still widespread in the early twentieth century, according to the testimony of W. Y. Evans-Wentz in The Fairy Faith in the Celtic Countries (London, 1911). An American-born believer in fairies, Evans-Wentz travelled all the Celtic countries on foot and collected material from all social classes, during which respondents spoke of their convictions without condescension or scepticism. In more recent times the fairy faith has fallen sharply, and many residents of all Celtic lands have found inquiries about such beliefs to be insulting. Nevertheless, as late as 1990 a privately funded Fairy Investigation Society maintained an office in Dublin, dedicated to collecting reports of fairy sightings while promising to protect the anonymity of the contributors.
Learned speculation on the origin of the fairy faith has centred on four theories. 1. Fairies embody a folk memory of a region's original inhabitants. When a new people seized a territory through force of arms or technological superiority, remnants of the conquered and displaced people would linger in caves and remote areas, preying upon their conquerors in the night. The survival in all Celtic countries of prehistoric monuments, apparently built by people of smaller stature, would support this perception. 2. Fairies are composed of the discarded gods and diminished heroes of the old native religion. While this thesis may explain the existence of fairies and fairy-like creatures in other traditions, its applications to Celtic instances requires several qualifications. The full nature of Celtic religion is not known. Characters in the oldest Celtic literature, e.g. Lug Lámfhada, Cúchulainn, and the Tuatha Dé Danann, are now thought to be derived from the older faith, yet they are by no means fairies. When characters from the oldest literature reappear in fairy lore, specifically Medb and Midir, they are greatly transformed. In addition, many characters in fairy lore, such as the merrow or the pooka, have no antecedents in the oldest Celtic literature but have many counterparts in international folklore.
3. Fairies are personifications of primitive spirits of nature. Earlier Celtic peoples, like pre-technological societies studied by modern anthropologists, may have endowed every object with a spiritual nature that was anthropomorphized over the centuries, especially after the arrival of Christianity. 4. Fairies embody the spirits of the dead. This view accommodates well the fearsome aspect of many solitary fairies and also explains the danger to mortals of eating fairy food, i.e. that they would be prevented from returning to the realm of the living. Further reading on these complex issues may be found in Katharine M. Briggs, The Vanishing People (London, 1978), 27–38, and in Lewis Spence, British Fairy Origins (London, 1946).
The ash and the birch were thought to have powers to resist fairy magic in different parts of the Celtic world. The hazel, on the other hand, was thought so favoured by the fairies that it was not often burned; trooping fairies are described as dancing around or camping under the hawthorn. See ALPLUACHRA, the joint-eater; BOCTOGAÍ; BUGELNOZ; BUGGANE; CNÚ DEIREÓIL, the fairy musician; CORANIAID, demonic dwarfs; ELF; ELLYLL, Welsh elves; ENFANT-OISEAU, sacrificial childbird; FETCH, the doppelganger; FFERYLLT, alchemist or magician; GANCONER, the love-talker; GILLE DUBH; GÍRLE GUAIRLE; SPRIGGAN. See also Katharine M. Briggs, An Encyclopedia of Fairies (London and New York, 1976); The Vanishing People: A Study of Traditional Fairy Beliefs (London, 1978); Reidar Th. Christiansen, ‘Some Notes on the Fairies and the Fairy Faith’, Béaloideas, 39–41 (1971–3), 95–111, repr. in Hereditas: Essays and Studies Presented to Professor Séamus Ó Duilearga, ed. B. O. Almqvist (Dublin, 1975); Seán Ó hEochaidh, Fairy Legends from Donegal, trans. Maire MacNeill, ed. Séamas Ó Catháin (Dublin, 1977); Lucy Allen Paton, Studies in the Fairy Mythology of Arthurian Romance (Cambridge, Mass., 1903; repr. New York, 1960); Carolyn White, A History of Irish Fairies (Cork, 1976); William Butler Yeats (ed.), Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (London, 1888); (ed.), Irish Fairy Tales (London, 1892); Yeats's 1888 and 1892 volumes were condensed in Irish Fairy and Folk Tales (New York, c.1935) and bound together as Fairy and Folk Tales of Ireland (Gerrards Cross, 1973). James Stephens's widely read Irish Fairy Tales (London and New York, 1920) is a highly individualized literary adaptation of traditional stories.