IRISH FAERIES: They’re No Disney Princesses!
Updated: Aug 9, 2019
Every girl wants to be a Disney princess. At least that’s what I’ve heard. For my part, I wanted to be a good witch, like Samantha Stephens, or a faerie living a carefree life in the moon-bathed woods, dancing and making music, surrounded by my animal friends.
Disney Princesses have a lot going for them, though. They get to live in beautiful palaces (in the end anyway). They are pretty with perfect-looking bodies. Their prince finds them, marries them, and lives happily ever after with them (or so the story goes). In addition, they are good-hearted, kind people despite having been subjected to some really cruel behavior from step-mothers and other baddies.
Another advantage a couple of Disney Princesses, specifically Cinderella and Aurora (aka Sleeping Beauty), share is having fairy godmothers. Cinderella’s is jolly, plump, a little daffy, and wingless, but she helps make her godchild’s dreams become reality. Aurora has three godmothers who are fairies. They are tiny (Cinderella’s is human-sized) and have wings but otherwise resemble Ella’s: plump, jolly, spacey, and helpful. This has instilled in children the idea that fairies are cute, sweet, and benevolent. But until the Victorian Age, cultures who believed in fairies (and there were many) viewed them as beings to be feared. The Irish worried about the wrath of their faeries to such an extent that they avoided naming them directly. Instead, they used coded phrases, such as “The Good People” and “The Gentry” to keep from offending the Wee Folk.
Avoiding offending faeries is a good policy. Take warning from Sleeping Beauty. Maleficent may seem rather witch-like to American eyes, but she is a faerie. A tall, slender, dark faerie who resembles Irish faeries much more than Aurora’s pixie godmothers do. The King and Queen leave her off the guest list for the Princess’ christening. She attends anyway—to curse the child in order to punish the parents. This is in keeping with the behavior of Irish faeries. They are easily insulted and often respond with dire curses.
Even so, Irish faeries will just as quickly bless a person with life-long good fortune simply because he or she has done them a small kindness.
W.B.Yeats, in his Irish Fairy & Folk Tales collection, divided faeries into two categories: Trooping and Solitary. Trooping faeries were social (at least with their own kind) and sometimes could be seen traveling in procession across the Irish countryside. At other times, a human might encounter them having a celebration under a Faerie Tree. Trooping faeries love to make music, sing, dance, and have sex. However, don’t mistake their joyful, fun-loving behavior for harmlessness. They are unpredictable when it comes to humans. They may view a human who stumbles across their merry-making as an interloper who has invaded their privacy. That mortal is likely to be cursed with never-ending misfortune. In other instances, a person may be invited to join their celebration. But this is a dangerous thing too. Many stories tell of humans who have spent what they thought was one night with the faeries only to discover, when they returned home, that many years had passed. All their friends and family had grown old or even died.
Solitary faeries, those who spend life purposefully alone, tend to be an even scarier lot. These are definitely not the warm and fuzzy butterfly beings of coloring books. In fact, many of these look and act nothing like the contemporary American image of a faerie. Below are a few prime examples.
Leprechauns: Yes, they are faeries. This is not the happy cereal box guy. Leprechauns may look harmless, but they’re liars and con artists. They do guard wealth (a pot o’ gold, if you like) but if you think you’ll get any, you’re as foolish as the leprechaun believes you to be. Mostly, he just wants to be left alone to make shoes and drink. If you catch a leprechaun, he will bribe you with the promise of great wealth and even give you silver or gold coins to get himself out of the situation. But he’s playing you. The coins are magical. The silver will return to him and the gold will turn to ashes once he gets away.
Cluricauns: cousins of leprechauns They don’t avoid humans. In fact, they tend to move into their houses, usually into the wine cellar. Their chief occupation is getting drunk. They also enjoy borrowing (stealing, really) farm animals and riding them around the countryside at night. They like to borrow household items as well and enjoy making a mess of their host’s home. Generally, they aren’t evil. They’re just bloody nuisances.
Gronochs: another nuisance of a faerie. Originally Scottish, they emigrated to Ireland. Gronochs look like small old men. They wear no clothes. Instead, they are covered with reddish hair which is entangled with twigs, leaves, and other debris picked up on their travels. They are dirty and have no regard for personal hygiene. They have the power of invisibility but will show themselves to a mortal they like. The Gronoch will then take up residence in that person’s house. On the plus side, he will help with chores around the farm, asking only a bit of cream or food in exchange. However, he will get underfoot and make a pest of himself. Since he is a faerie, you can’t ask him to leave. No matter how politely you do it, he is likely to feel insulted, resulting in bad things for you and your family. The safest way to get rid of a Gronoch is to invite a priest or minister over. Gronochs hate the clergy and, at the sight of the houseguest, will leave you in peace and become someone else’s problem.
Puca: a shape-shifter and either a malevolent being or simply a mischievous prankster (depending on which version of folklore you hear). He often appears as a black horse with golden eyes and a long mane. Unlike the Scottish Each Uisge, a deadly water horse, the Puca does not drowned his victims. He can and does talk, however. Some folklore says he offers wisdom, but there’s a dark side to this story. It is said the Puca will stop at a house and call a person by name. If that person does not come out, the faerie will respond vindictively, destroying the property. In addition to appearing as a horse, the Puca takes on a variety of forms. He has been seen as:
--a small, ugly goblin who shows up at the end of harvest to demand his share.
--a large bogeyman who terrorizes people at night.
--a menace who sneaks up on late night travelers from behind and hurls them into bogs and muddy ditches and
--as a black goat with curly horns
At the mere sight of this Puca, it is said, hens stop laying and cows stop milking. So you probably don’t want him around the farm.
The final faerie for this week’s post is one no one ever wants to see: the Dullahan. The Dullahan resembles a headless man riding a black horse which snorts flame from its nose. He is dressed in black and wears a cape. For a whip, he uses a human spine. In his right hand or the crook of his arm he carries his grinning head. The head glows in the dark and the Dullahan uses it as a lantern. But it does more than light his way; its dark and darting eyes are said to be able to see far distances no matter how black the night. It’s said that anyone caught watching him will go blind in one eye or have a bucket of blood thrown into his or her face. Wherever the Dullahan stops, someone in that house will die.
That's it for this week. Thanks for reading! Next week’s post: Changelings, Merrows, the Fear Daerg, the Sluagh, and the dreaded Banshee. ‘Til then don’t tangle with the Good People!
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