Fairies are the Dead
Every step, every moment, every thought and deed leads us ever onward towards another life, a life which may perhaps last for eternity. Thus, from an immortal creature’s perspective, death might simply be a form of birth. The fact that some of our ancestors have indeed become fairies gives us a shadowy window into understanding the reasoning of the beings of this strange world. For the dead have an obvious interest in the things they loved in life and in those things they would love if they were still mortal. In the story of “The Three Spinners,” a woman is told to spin a room full of flax in order to be married. Unable to perform such an impossible feat, she falls into despair when three old women appear to her and tell her that they are her ancestors. At this point, they proceed to help her in return for being invited to her child’s christening. (Grimm and Grimm, 1812) The fairies’ goal in helping the human girl in this story is clear. They seek, as many elders would, to help a grandchild or a great niece in finding love and happiness.
Certainly, not all fairy motivations are so simple or clear as those of the three spinners as not all fairies are in any way related to humans, or their immortal life existing in nature has altered their perceptions and shrouded their motivations in mystery. However, at the end of the day, these three spinners and those fairies, who still clearly love their descendants, will return to fairy land when they are through helping their human decedents, where they will dance and speak with the other fairies.
Ancestor worship is a common practice among the animist peoples including the people of Europe's past. Mortals in many religions become gods or spirits which protected their decedents from harm and from their enemies. So many of the beings we would recognize as fairies are in the spirits of peoples’ ancestors that walk the spirit world or remain behind to offer aid. In Russia there was no doubt
“That the souls of the families’ patriarchs watched over their children and their children's children; that the departed spirits, especially those of the ancestors, ought always to be regarded with pious veneration. When the family was in need, these ancestors should be solicited or conciliated by prayer and sacrifice."
“When a Russian family moves from one house to another, the fire is raked out of the old stove into a jar and solemnly conveyed to the new one, and the words ‘Welcome, Grandfather, to the new home!’ being uttered when it arrived. All new animals are introduced to this ‘Grandfather,’ and food is laid out for them at special occasions.” Not all ancestor fairies are connected to the household, however. The previously mentioned bannik lives within the bathhouse while others live and aid in the fields and farm. Still others, such as the banshee, appear to live in the moorlands coming out only to watch humans and provide them with gifts or to mourn their passing. (Ralston, 1872)
“There is a legend told of the Macleod family: (that) Soon after the heir of the Macleods was born, a beautiful woman in wonderful raiment, who was a fairy woman or banshee, (there were joyous as well as mourning banshees), appeared at the castle and went directly to the babe’s cradle. She took up the babe and chanted over it a series of verses, and each verse had its own melody. The verses foretold the future manhood of the young child and acted as a protective charm over its life. Then she put the babe back into its cradle and, going out, disappeared across the moorlands.” In another tale, the banshee of Grants Meg Moulach would stand beside the head of the family and advise them on playing chess. (F.S. Wilde, 1887)
The Romans also believed that humans would often become fairies in death: “M. A. Lefèvre shows that the Roman Lares, so frequently compared to house-haunting fairies, are in reality quite like the Gaelic banshee. Originally, they were nothing more than the unattached souls of the dead, akin to Manes; that time and custom made distinctions between them. In the common language, Lares and Manes had synonymous dwellings; and that, finally, the idea of death was little by little divorced from the worship of the Lares so that they became guardians of the family and protectors of life. On all the tombs of their dead, the Romans inscribed these names: Manes, inferi, silentes, the last of which, meaning the silent ones, is equivalent to the term ‘People of Peace’ given to the fairy-folk of Scotland. Nor were the Roman Lares always thought of as inhabiting dwellings. Many were supposed to live in the fields, in the streets of cities, at crossroads quite like certain orders of fairies and demons. In each place these ancestral spirits had their chapels and received offerings of fruit, flowers, and foliage. If neglected, they became spiteful and were then known as lemures.” (Wentz, 1911)
This, however, leaves us to wonder; what is the catalyst? Why do some human souls become banshees and domovoi while others don’t? To understand this we turn to an accounting of one of the closest relations between a human and a fairy we have, that of Elspeth Reoch, a young, Scottish girl who was trained in magic and becomes the lover of a number of fairies. Elspeth Reoch’s first encounter with fairies occurred when she was 12 years old. At this time she was waiting beside a loch for a boat when two men approached her, one in black and the other in green tartan plaid. The man in plaid offered to teach her a spell which would allow her to see things as they actually were in return for a courtship which ultimately led to a brief sexual relationship between her and the fairy. Her second encounter with fairies occurred two years later just after she had a child by another man. At this time a different fairy man comes to her. This second fairy tells her that he is human who died as the sun was going down so that he is now neither dead nor alive but is forever caught between heaven and Earth. So it is that in this story that perhaps we have our answer as to why some people become fairies when they die. People, according to this story, become caught in the in-between world of fairies when they die at a time of an in-between during sundown, for example. (Purkiss, 2007) Further, according to Diane Purkiss, Elspeth’s encounter with fairies also occurs during a time of an in-between when she is on the edge of the loch, at the boundary of two clans, between her family and another land. It also occurs when she is in adolescence, between childhood and adulthood. Her second encounter occurs when she has a child born outside of marriage.
“Her encounters with fairies occur at the two most common times for such encounters; at the threshold of womanhood and after childbirth.” (Purkiss, 2007)
This time of in-between is a constant theme among fairies. For example, those who die in childbirth, another time of in-between, are some of the most likely people to become fairies; also babies who die before they can be named while they are still between the world of the womb and the human world. Perhaps the reason fairies themselves often appear so young is that many of them are those who died on the cusp of adolescence between two moments of life. So just as the fairy Elspeth first encountered, they are stuck forever between being alive and being dead. Beyond simply offering some clarity as to what circumstances cause humans to become fairies, this story also offers some insight into the simplicity of certain fairies’ goals. That they seek out other humans like themselves, humans who are on the fringes in order to either make the humans like them by taking them away or in order to copulate with them. Fairies then, at least those fairies that are the dead, are attracted to two things: their decedents who they are trying to help, or those humans who have become like them by being on the margins finding themselves between two worlds. Of course, in the latter case, not all such encounters are positive as the fairies often seek to kill those just as they themselves died.
According to (W. W. Gibbing, 1889), people see among the trooping fairies the: “Faces of friends and relatives, long since doomed to the battle trench or the deep sea, have been recognized by those who dared to gaze on the fairy march. The maid has seen her lost lover, and the mother her stolen child, and the courage to plan and achieve their deliverance has been possessed by, at least, one border maiden.” So not only are the dead among the fairies, but it is possible at times to bring them back to life. This can also mean that they are not truly dead.