F is for… A Little Guide to Faerie

Faerie. The realm of the fair folk.

I have been totally enchanted by the Celtic Otherworld, and I’m not embarassed to admit it. Well… Almost not. Well… Sometimes not. Well…

Ever been told you’re ‘away with the fairies’? That used to be meant literally*. Ever seen a fairy mushroom ring? Just because we know the science behind them now, it doesn’t mean we don’t love the magic of the story anymore. The fair folk are around every little corner of this little island, even in our rational post-Enlightenment world. And should you want to go looking for them, there are plenty of field guides out there. So here are just a few pointers for fair-folk hunters who want to seek out some of the magic that they’ve lost.

You can’t learn about them – you have to ‘see’ them for yourself. My (highly unexpected) experience with the fae came first, and then I thought I should probably find out what other people have thought about them. Such wonderful books as McNeill’s The Silver Bough and Evans-Wentz’s Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries are great sources of folklore** – but if you live in Europe, you’ve probably heard a lot of the stories already. I’ve loved fairies for a long time – but who hasn’t? It all started with some stories that were told to me in Ireland, some folk practices I’ve seen, and first with the fabulous stories that my grandfather told me about the fairies in the wood just beyond his house (which came complete with an appropriately Otherworldly garden full of overgrown mysteries and hidden treasures). Some of that is traditional folklore, some is what you might call modern folklore – no less valid for being recent. In all of it, there are doorways into this beautiful and terrifying archetype that we’ve domesticated, shut in a box and written For Children Aged 1-6 Only on the side.

You can’t classify them. Which doesn’t stop people trying. ADF druids talk about the three ‘kindreds’ – gods, ancestors and land spirits – but the fair folk are all three and none. ‘Fae’ is a modern spelling of the Middle English word ‘fay’ – think Spenser’s Faerie Queen. I use the word ’cause I think it’s pretty, along with ‘good folk’ or ‘fair folk’, which are Irish euphemisms – because folklore says you’re safest not saying their real name, which they hate. Most ADF and Gaelic Pagan types talk about the Aes Sidhe, which is Irish for ‘the people of the [fairy] mounds’. The Gaelic Sidhe are not the álfar of the Norse cultures, except when they are. They almost definitely aren’t the trolls of Scandinavia. They might be the hill people of Shetland or the brownies of the Scottish lowlands. They might be deep in the woods and they might be at the end of your garden. Or they might not be. They are said to be everything from fallen angels waiting for readmittance into a Christian heaven, to local spirits forgotten since pagan times — or maybe they’re just remnants of ancestral belief that are on the edge of our collective memory, that we can see from the corner of our eye, if we don’t quite look at them. The etymology of ‘fairy’ goes back via Old French to Latin, possibly to a reference to the Fates, or spirits in general, while ‘faery’ literally means the realm or sphere of activity of the fae. See? You can’t even pin the word down – it escapes, giggling, into the undergrowth.

You can’t be sure when or where you’re going to meet them. It is said that they come out at dusk, at Midsummer’s Eve, on May Eve, and a few days before the winter solstice, but it all depends on where you get your folklore. If you get lost on the moors on a dark night, or the mists come up suddenly and you’re near an old hill fort, be careful not to stumble into somewhere… else. Then you might hear the banshee or see the bean-nighe, doing the washing with skeletal fingers at midnight, and you don’t want that. Let’s just say it’s not a good sign.

You can’t trust them, not because they’re ‘bad’, but because they’re not like us. They like offerings (I leave honey, milk and a bit of anything I bake). They give gifts and do favours, but only if they feel like it, and be sure not to say ‘thank you’. If you talk about them, call them an inoffensive, euphemistic name. Don’t assume their mischief is behind all your lost keys and moved books – but do ask them to give the keys back, just in case. Folklore says not to eat the food they’ve given you, but I can’t say I’ve ever been given a hot dog at the faerie barbeque. In Scotland you might be lucky enough to have a brownie clean your house – leave offerings, or things might go missing. If you give it a present of some clothes, you’ll never see it again. (Why yes, J.K Rowling did steal from folklore something chronic.) Just be careful, while you’re there, not to fall in love with a kelpie disguised as a human. Which isn’t always unwise – if an ugly old woman asks you to give her a kiss, you might find she’s a powerful Otherworldly creature who not only grants you wishes, but changes into a beautiful young thing before your very eyes and says she’ll do whatever you want, forever. On the other hand, that might be just a bit of a wish-fulfillment story. (Or a nod back at older legends of kings, and ladies of sovereignty.)

And then sometimes people underestimate them. You could get into ‘fairy magic’, all love and light and pretty pictures, and you will forget that these aren’t shimmering winged creatures who will carry out your every whim, but the stuff of terror and nightmares and legends of stolen children and curses and elf-shot and death. Good luck with that. I’ll be here, watching my back.

…OK, so I’m a little bit embarrassed to admit it. I wouldn’t quite say that I believe in fairies — at least, not the pretty, winged, Victorian, Cottingley-Fairy-hoax type. And in my more rational hours, when I stop, look down at my plate of honey, and realise that I’m leaving offerings for the bloody fairies, I check that the back doors of the the next-door neighbours are closed, and wonder if I’m entirely bonkers for entertaining the notion of the Aes Sidhe. But I don’t quite… [looks around nervously]… not believe in them, either. And in the end, it doesn’t matter whether I do or not. I’m doing something that my ancestors did, and that’s usually good for connecting with life around me. (But not always. I’m not going to start with the leeches. I do have a tiny bit of sense.)

I love the liminal things of life, the realm of the outsiders, of those of us who are different – not because I want to, but because that’s who I am. Faerie is as a good a metaphor for my life as anything else. You go to bed, my dear. I’m running away to dance all night with the fairies.

Up the airy mountain
Down the rushy glen

We daren’t go a-hunting
For fear of little men;
Wee folk, good folk,
Trooping all together;
Green jacket, red cap,
And white owl’s feather.

By the craggy hill-side,
Through the mosses bare,
They have planted thorn trees
For pleasure here and there.
Is any man so daring
As dig them up in spite?
He shall find the thornies set
In his bed at night.

They stole little Bridget
For seven years long;
When she came down again
Her friends were all gone.
They took her lightly back
Between the night and morrow;
They thought she was fast asleep
But she was dead with sorrow.
They have kept her ever since
Deep within the lake
On a bed of flag leaves
Watching till she wake.

Up the airy mountain
Down the rushy glen

We daren’t go a-hunting
For fear of little men;
Wee folk, good folk,
Trooping all together;
Green jacket, red cap,
And white owl’s feather.

The Fairies by William Allingham

And if you want a great modern story of a search for the fair folk, read Signe Pike’s Faerie Tale.

*I am totally away with the fairies. All the time. Hence, y’know, this post.

**The Book of the Cailleach, which I’ve mentioned before, also has some good stories about wise women who work with the fair folk in various ways.

5 thoughts on “F is for… A Little Guide to Faerie

  1. To reiterate your comment about seeing Other Worlders (OWs) out of the corner of your eye. In my experience I see OWs (particularly Dryads in my case) only through the rod photoreceptors in my eyes, never through the cones. The latter are what we use when we look straight on at someting and they are colour receptive. Whereas Rods see only in black and white and are concentrated to the side of the eye. I see Dryads only obliquely to the side of the eye and only when I am consciously receptive to rod vision. In addition, because rods see in monochrome, they tend to work more effectively in the half light of morning and dusk when colour is less well defined than in full daylight. This is why OWs are said to come out in the evenings and early mornings. I don’t think that this is actually so – it’s literally a trick of the light – and of our eyes!
    In my experience the key to see to seeing them is to be in places they favour (wooded areas for Dryads, overgrown grassland and stream vicinities for Fayries, etc.) and to train yourself consciously to use the side vision of the eye.


    • Maybe – but, as with mushroom rings, isn’t the myth more beautiful than the science? ;)

      Actually I think there were a lot of cultural reasons why the Celts associated Otherworldly activity with dawn/dusk, the mists, etc. I find it useful to immerse myself in myth because that’s where I find my Otherworldly inspiration. You can’t look directly at them – you have to approach them through the stories… :)

  2. Great intro to the huge and fascinating realm of faery, and I do love that poem! One of my interests is how our perceptions of faeries change with the times. During the Victorian period they were perceived as pernicious creatures who were to be warded out whereas many modern pagans honour them within the home and attempt to forge relationships outside in nature.

    Forester, thanks for sharing your experiences. I find it easiest to connect with nature spirits in areas that I that I visit frequently and remove litter. My perception of them began as a feeling, followed by sidereal vision. It’s taken a while to communicate with them face to face. But then there’s been the odd occasion where they’ve shown up out the of the blue. And yes, light conditions can play an important part.

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