The Inside Scoop on Celtic Faeries
Updated: Aug 23
Recently, I read online that you should never say, “Thank you” to a faerie. I encountered this piece of advice on several sites and I passionately disagree with it. Of course, I could be mistaken. Faeries appear in the folklore of many countries across the world and have done so for over two thousand years. There may be a type of faerie in some folklore tradition who may be enraged by an expression of gratitude. However, if a Celtic faerie ever does something nice for you, you would be well-advised to show your appreciation. You need to be on your best behavior with Celtic faeries. Even then, you may anger them. They are capricious and easily offended. But since forewarned is forearmed, here’s the skinny on the Fair Folk of Ireland and Scotland.
Where Do Faeries Come From?
Irish folklore tells about the origin of the island’s faeries. They are a race of people called the Tuatha de Danann (the people of the goddess Danu). Over a thousand years before the birth of Christ, they invaded the island and defeated its inhabitants, the Fir Bolg. Some versions of the story say that they allowed the Fir Bolg to live in peace as long as they remained in the province of Connacht (the least fertile part of the island). The Tuatha de Danann are said to have won victory because of their powerful magic. In addition to being magical, they were civilized and cultured, highly skilled as artists and craftsmen. Nevertheless, the Tuatha de Danann later met their match when Gaelic invaders, the Sons of Mil, invaded. The Milesians and the people of Danu fought to a draw. Declaring a truce, both sides agreed to divide the land in half, although not in the way you might think. The Tuatha de Danann went underground while the Milesians stayed above. It was thus that Danu’s people became known as the Aos Sidhe, the people of the mounds. Sidhe is now the word for faerie in the Irish language.
Some people say this loss diminished them and that is how the faeries became “the little people.” This is easily disputed, though, by the ample evidence in Irish folklore that faeries are not always tiny. More about that later.
Where did the Scottish faeries come from? I have not found a pre-Christian origin story for them. There is only a Christian-era statement found in both Scottish and Irish folklore that faeries are fallen angels who were not good enough for heaven yet not bad enough for hell. I contend that the Irish story of the Tuatha de Danann can be applied to the Scottish faeries as well since, historically, the inhabitants of Scotland originally came from Ireland.
Social Organization of the Good People
The idea of the faeries being too bad for heaven but not bad enough for hell falls apart when juxtaposed with Scottish folklore’s division of the faeries into the Seelie and Unseelie Courts. The faeries of the Seelie Court are compassionate and charitable, always striving to help humans while those of the Unseelie Court are bad—very, very bad. They are malicious and constantly seek to harm humans.
Irish folklore divides faeries into two categories as well: Trooping Faeries and Solitary Faeries. These two groups, however, are less black and white in their morality and temperament. The latter tend to be more dangerous to encounter but they can range from the Faer Darrig, who is nasty and murderous to leprechauns, who are mischievous but far from
malevolent. Unlike the members of the Seelie Court, the Irish Trooping faeries aren’t actively looking to help humans. They might grant blessings on or favors to a human who has
impressed favorably them but they’ll just as quickly curse a human who offends them (which is very easy to do!). Mostly, Trooping Faeries ignore humans. The main difference between the two groups is that the Trooping Faeries travel together in procession across the countryside while Solitary Faeries prefer traveling alone. Still, some Solitary Faeries attached themselves to humans. Examples of these are the Scottish Brownies, who help human families with household tasks, and the Irish domestic faerie, the Grogoch.
A Few Things to Know About Celtic Faeries
1) They do not conform to pop culture tropes either from animated films or contemporary fantasy novels. So let go of the image of the tiny butterfly-winged women found in cartoons and coloring books. Equally disregard the dark portrait of the over-sexed, vengeful, ruthless fae of young adult literature.
2) Not all faeries are short and few of them have wings. W.B. Yeats put it best: “Everything about them seems capricious including their size. They seem to take whatever size or shape pleases them.”
3) While a handful of Celtic faeries, such as leprechauns and brownies, are hard-working, the majority just like to indulge themselves and have fun.
4) Primarily, faeries spend their time partying. Their favorite activities are eating, drinking, playing music of unearthly beauty, and making love.
5) Faerie time moves at a different speed than human time. Some humans, enchanted by faerie music, have stumbled into the Otherworld. After staying for what seems a short time—a day or a week—these humans have returned to their own world to find that years, even decades, have passed.
6) Faeries sometimes kidnap humans. They spirit away young women as brides and new mothers as wet nurses for faerie children. Most often, though, they steal babies, leaving a changeling as a substitute. Changelings are cranky, often sick, sometimes elderly faeries who’ve magically transformed to look like the stolen child.
7) Faeries intensely dislike iron and can be wounded with it.
8) Even though they can get sick and be wounded, faeries don’t die. They are immortal.
9) Three dates are highly significant to the Fair Folk. Their high festival days are May Eve (Beltane), Midsummer's Eve, and November Eve (Samhain). On the human calendar, these dates are April 30th, June 23rd, and October 31st respectively.
10) According to Yeats, their most joyful celebration is on Midsummer’s Eve. It is the most dangerous time, though, for human women because one of the customary activities associated with this feast is stealing mortal women for brides.
11) November Eve is a more somber occasion because it marks the start of winter and the coming of the darkness. However, they still manage to have some fun. It is said that, on Samhain’s Eve, they dance with ghosts. Not a bad way to pass time on Halloween!
Of course, there is much more to say about the Good People but let’s leave it there. The Fair Folk don’t really like being discussed. By the way, they also really dislike being called “faeries.”
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Slan go foil!
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