Few things can inspire so much awe and fear as nature itself. The volcano which rises majestically into the sky inspires poets, painters, songwriters, and deep sighs of pleasure at its sight. Yet this same volcano destroys and kills; inspiring terror with each loud rumble or plume of smoke. So it is that nature is that which inspires people to pray in both reverence and fear; so it is in nature that fairies are at their greatest. It may be impossible to ever truly understand the mind of a natural phenomenon, for nature inspires awe in humans because it is so vastly different. Even for those natural phenomena that were once human, it will surely have changed greatly, perhaps beyond all recognition after hundreds or even thousands of years as an object of beauty and, at times, raw power. Yet despite such differences, it is nature’s spirits, it is the fairies of wells, trees, and rocks that people turned to for help most often, and it is these beings that often seem to have the greatest impact on the human world.
Wells, Springs, Pools, and Fountains
Few things held greater reverence for the Celtic people than pools of water. Indeed, water spirits were perhaps the most common of all nature’s spirits. (Briggs, 1967) The nature of fairies of the many wells and springs were so important to the people in ancient times that long after they stopped worshipping the other fairies, and deities had faded in importance to little more than murderous fairies, the Catholic Church was unable to stop the worship of water and so was forced to dedicate the sacred fountains to Saints in order to make the worship of water legitimate. (Maccullock, 1911) Christians were not the first ones to rededicate wells and water to a new religion, however. Many of the river gods and goddesses within the Celtic lands “seemed to possess pre-Celtic names.”
In other words, the importance of these gods was so great that the Celts continued to worship them even after they had overcome the original worshipers, a worship which continued even after they were Christianized. (Maccullock, 1911)
It was the spirits of the wells that were the people’s guardians and comfort. In one story, a group of horned witches kept invading a woman's home tormenting her and eventually forcing her to flee. After fleeing from her home, the woman collapses in tears beside a well, and it is here that a voice speaks to her telling her what she must do to be free of the witches. (Joseph Jacobs, 1892) Well spirits and water spirits are often unpersonified beings represented only as a simple voice which provides advice to humans in need.
Water is a powerful, human ally against the other beings that might do them harm. There are many stories in which a person only has to cross water to be safe from a magical being pursuing it. (Wentz, 1911) In one of the most famous American folktales, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” a headless huntsman can be thwarted in his attempts to take a human’s head if the human simply crosses over a bridge which crosses over water. The simple act of crossing water is significant because the water, as we have seen, is alive and is at least at times a protector of humanity....
The advice of water fairies is given even to those who not only don’t necessarily deserve it but who would do evil with it. In the “Story of Gold Tree and Silver Tree,” a Scottish variation of the “Snow White” stories, a trout in a stream takes the place of the mirror in advising the evil stepmother, telling her not only that Gold Tree is more beautiful but also letting the stepmother know that her stepdaughter survived the Queen’s attempted murder as well as where she is located. This information allows the evil stepmother to try to kill her innocent stepdaughter again. (Joseph Jacobs, 1896) In this story, the trout is the personification of the pool of water as fish are often representative of the fairies within wells and other bodies of water. “Even now in Brittany the fairy dweller in a spring has the form of an eel, while in the 17th century Highland wells contained fish so sacred that no one dared to catch them.” (Maccullock, 1911) ...
In one Russian tale, two rivers, the Volga and Vazuza, get into a dispute over which of them is wiser and stronger in order to gain the respect of the other. Eventually, they agree to race to prove which is better. This race takes the form of a race to the sea in the springtime so at least in this case their bodies are the rivers themselves. Russian rivers are well-known in myths to demand respect of humans; drowning anyone who doesn’t provide this respect while providing easy crossing for those who do. So it is apparent that these rivers greatly desire to be respected. The desire for respect, for sacrifices to it can make water a cruel being at times. “The malevolent aspect of the spirit of the well is seen in the "cursing wells" of which it was thought that when some article inscribed with an enemy's name was thrown into them with the accompaniment of a curse, the spirit of the well would cause his death. In some cases the curse was inscribed on a leaden tablet thrown into the waters just as, in other cases, a prayer for the offerer's benefit was engraved on it. Or, again, objects over which a charm had been said were placed in a well that the victim who drew water might be injured. An excellent instance of a cursing well is that of Fynnon Elian in Denbigh, which must once have had a guardian priestess, for in 1815 an old woman who had charge of it presided at the ceremony. She wrote the name of the victim in a book receiving a gift at the same time. A pin was dropped into the well in the name of the victim, and through it and through knowledge of his name, the spirit of the well acted upon him to his hurt. Obviously, rites like these in which magic and religion mingle are not purely Celtic, but it is of interest to note their existence in Celtic lands and among Celtic folk.” –(Maccullock, 1911)
Great care must be given to insure that the water fairy is respected because, as with all fairies, they become helpful or dangerous based on how they are approached. In the story of Mother Holle (Lang, 1890) a girl’s wicked stepmother forces her stepdaughter to do all the work as per the usual tale. As she is spinning outside the cottage, she drops her spindle into the well. Fearing her stepmother more than the depths of the well, the girl dives into it. Instead of splashing into deep water, she finds herself in another world with a woman who keeps her as a maid for weeks. Because she is so respectful, Holle comes to be very impressed with the girl and gives her gold as a reward. At this point, the stepmother is jealous of the girl’s sudden wealth and sends her own daughter out. Because the daughter is idle and disrespectful, Holle punishes her. This is more than just a statement that one should be hard-working, such stories are religious tales warning one to be respectful of the fairies. One could argue that the girl in this tale was lucky because while she was respectful of the fairy once she met it, she was not careful in her approach. Humans who interrupt fairies during private moments will often pay with their lives....
For protection and blessing from the wells, humans of the past would offer gold and models of limbs and other parts of the body that had been healed or which they desired the well to heal for them. “Leaden tablets with inscriptions were placed in springs by those who desired healing or when the waters were low, and on some the actual waters are hardly discriminated from the divinities. The latter are asked to heal or flow or swell—words which apply more to the waters than to them, while the tablets with their frank animism also show that, in some cases, there were many elemental spirits of a well only some of whom were rising to the rank of a goddess. They are called collectively Niskas—the Nixies of later tradition, but some have personal names—Lerano, Dibona, Dea—showing that they were tending to become separate, divine personalities. The Peisgi are also appealed to perhaps the later Piskies.” (Religion of the Ancient Celts) Clothes and cloth are another common offering provided to water fairies.
Trees, Forests, Glens, and Plants
As previously mentioned, the word “temple” originally meant “wood” because within Europe the first churches were groves of trees, and the first idols were ancient or unique trees. Knowing simply that trees are of great importance, however, gives us little to understand the nature of the fairies which inhabit them. Luckily, being the center of the Universe is not the only reason why trees are important to humans. As previously mentioned, it was believed by many peoples that humans were born from trees. Among the Huns who invaded Europe, it is likely that humans and trees were considered to share the same souls such that humans were reincarnated trees, and trees were reincarnated humans. Further, trees could be bound to a person’s existing life such that people would plant a tree when their child was born because as it grew strong their child would as well. (Maccullock, 1911) In a Russian version of the Cinderella story (Lang, 1890), a birch tree grows from a mother’s grave, and it is this birch tree which provides her daughter with the magical gifts needed to win the prince. In the German fairy tale “The Juniper Tree” a boy is murdered and buried underneath a juniper tree. He is able to get his revenge because he is born from the tree in the form of a bird. (Grimm and Grimm, 1912)...
The connection between the human soul and trees stretches as far west as Ireland where people believed the souls would manifest as trees and other plants. So trees, or at least their souls, are similar to human souls such that people believed we shared a connection to each other even if we’re not always aware of it. Recalling further that for over half the population of Europe, humans were directly descended from trees. Tree fairies had a major advantage over most humans, however, for they could live for hundreds or even thousands of years longer than any human could. Further, giant trees inspire awe, reverence, and a sense of wonder that must have defined the most important of fairies and deities. Because of this, trees were also more closely connected to the other deities, fairies, and nature than humans typically were. Mistletoe, it was said, came down as a gift from the gods of the sky to crown the oak trees (Frazer, 1922)...
This is why May Day, winter festivals, and harvest festivals all involved the idea of trees which themselves symbolize fertility and life. So great was the trees’ power in making things grow and providing fertility that in some parts of Bavaria May Day bushes are set up in the houses of newly married people so that they would conceive. Women would also hug trees in hopes of becoming pregnant or hang chemises on fruitful trees. The Wends would cause their cattle to run around the tree as a means of making them thrive. (Frazer, 1922)
Indeed, long after people started attending a Christian church, they were still hanging the heads of dead animals in an old pear tree. Just as they had done with the wells, the Christian priests had to settle at a compromise initially hanging pictures of Saints in trees so that it would appear that people were worshiping the saints not the trees. In one example of this: “S. Martin of Tours was allowed to destroy a temple, but the people would not permit him to attack a much-venerated pine tree which stood beside it—an excellent example of the way in which the more official paganism fell before Christianity, while the older religion of the soil from which it sprang could not be entirely eradicated.” (Maccullock, 1911)
Even to this day we decorate pine trees and bring greenery into our homes in the wintertime to celebrate a major, Christian holiday. In so doing we continue acting out an ancient ritual of respect for the fairies even if most people are unaware of what they are doing. Brutal, Blood-Loving Trees Humans are descended from trees so we have inherited many things from them. One of the things we appear to share in common is an occasional desire for violence or a certain level of brutality. This is reflected in part by the fact that, for the Celts, honoring trees included hanging heads of animals killed during a hunt or impaled sacrifices among their branches. In Finland, people would worship in their sacred groves where they would hang the skins of sacrificial victims from the trees within a sacred grove. (Frazer, 1922)...
Tacitus pointed out: “No person enters it (the sacred grove) without being bound with a chain as an acknowledgment of his inferior nature and the power of the deity residing there. If he accidentally fall(s), it is not lawful for him to be lifted or to rise up; they roll themselves out along the ground. The whole of their superstition has this import: that from this spot the nation derives its origin; that here is the residence of the Deity, the Governor of all, and that everything else is subject and subordinate to him. These opinions receive additional authority from the power of the Semnones who inhabit a hundred cantons and, from the great body they compose, consider themselves as the head of the Suevi.” (Tacitus, 98) People were then afraid of trees and forests even as they were awed by them.
“Circassians regard the pear tree as the protector of cattle. They would cut down a young, pear tree in the forest, branch it, and carry it home where it was adored as a divinity. Almost every house had one such pear tree. In autumn, on the day of the festival, the tree was carried into the house with great ceremony to the sound of music amid the joyous cries of all the inmates who compliment it on its fortunate arrival. It is covered with candles, and a cheese is fastened to its top. Round about it they eat, drink, and sing. Then they bid the tree good-bye and take it back to the courtyard where it remains for the rest of the year, set up against the wall, without receiving any mark of respect.” (Frazer, 1922)
Perhaps the most interesting case of tree fairies living on in the wood comes from Scandinavia where it is said that the fairies of the elder tree will continue to attack people from the furniture. In one disturbing story, the fairy of the elder tree, which appeared as an old man, came out of the floor which was made of elder wood and sucked the breasts of three people causing them to swell painfully. (Keightley, 1870)
The Celts believed that the coppices which spring from the trunks of felled oaks are haunted by angry spirits of trees. In one story, a mooreland spirit with a white hand sprang from the coppices of birch trees. She would rise up at twilight and chase travelers her clothes rustling like dead leaves. When she touched a man’s head, they went mad. When she touched their heart, they died. This went on until at last one man finally banished her with salt. (Briggs, 1967)
Fairies are Animals
Animals are unique among the forces of nature. While we must always imagine the life of a sun or the desires of a tree, we can witness those of animals. In many cases the original deities of Europe, the Indo-Europeans, and other peoples were in fact animals and that they were later personified as humans. In most cases we certainly see the importance of animals to people’s lives when Boudica, one of the Celtic Queens of Briton, went to war against the Romans she used hares to help her divine the path she should take. Hares were important to the Celtic and Germanic peoples, in part, because they were the animals of witches and fairies, a tradition which perhaps lives on in the modern Easter Bunny. It’s important to remember that just as humans often turned into fairies and fairies often manifested as humans, fairies could also be personified as animals, and animals at times turn into fairies. In other words, animals can be “magical in themselves, with special powers and an independent way of life.” (Briggs, 1967)
Nature’s spirits in the forms of goats, boars, birds, hares, and other animals are important to humans as these are the spirits of the grain and farms, the spirits that make crops flourish and grow as we shall see further in the “Home, Heath, and Field” section of their books. Grain fairies are not the only nature fairy manifested as an animal, however. As mentioned previously, the eel and trout were often manifestations of the wells and sacred springs. This is one point most people miss when trying to determine where the myth of the Loch Ness monster originated. According to some accounts, the eel would almost fit the descriptions of the Loch Ness monster perfectly except for the fact that eels don’t get long enough, and they don’t stick their head out of the water the way Nessy does. (http://www.cryptozoology.com/cryptids/nessie.php). However, both of these challenges to the eel theory are made mute if the creature is in fact an ancient fairy/deity of the Celtic people. One of the first written sightings of Nessy would seem to support this idea as it was by a missionary which Nessy was trying to stop from crossing the loch. A missionary who then rebuked Nessy in a story that fits the common tale themes invented by missionaries and saints who would claim to have been able to rebuke the gods and fairies of the Celtic people in order to prove they were greater then the beings the people originally worshiped. Given that the first written account of the creature is in essence an attempt at making it appear to be a demon, we can presume that further attempts were made to do the same to convince people to forget about it which is why our understanding of it is so meager but for a few sighting stories scattered through history. Nessy isn’t the only large creature water fairies manifest as.
Among the Irish, the boars were so important that their swineherds were given otherworldly knowledge in many folk tales. In Saxon mythology, the symbol of the boar was believed to protect people from harm when it was worn on their helmets. (Davidson and Davidson, 1989) Tacitus makes note of this as well. In his observation, the boar and the protection it provided represented their worship of the Mother of the gods. “They worship the Mother of the gods and, as the symbol of their superstition, they carry about them the figures of wild boars. This serves them in place of armor and every other defence: it renders the votary of the goddess safe even in the midst of foes.” (Tacitus, 98)
In Ireland, cats are regarded as fairies in their own right. In one story, a man tells a fairy tale about how he encountered a procession of cats in much the same way one would encounter a procession of fairies. The cats in the procession seemed to be mourning the death of the king of the cats. When the storyteller had finished his tale, a cat which was resting in the room with him said “By Jove, old Peter’s dead. I’m the King of the cats.” The cat than fled up the chimney in a flash and was never seen again.” (Briggs, 1967) Jacob Grimm asserts that Puss in Boots is actually the tale of a house fairy who has taken the form of a cat. In Scotland the Cait Sidhe is a fairy that manifests itself as a black cat with a white spot on its chest. In addition to cats acting as fairies, otters are also considered to be a form of fairy with a master otter waited upon by many other otters. (Briggs, 1967) In addition to manifesting as animals, fairies and deities have used various animals as messengers as well as using the white stage acted upon as the messenger from their world. With Scandinavian and Germanic mythology, Odin used ravens as messengers and Thor used robins.
Mountains, Rocks, and Lands
When Cnoc Aine, a goddess of Celtic lore, showed a group of girls a hill through a hole in a stone, they were able to see that it was teaming with invisible beings. In some cases such beings are simply fairies which make their homes in hills and mountains; however, many of them are their own class of beings. Unlike most of the fairy relationships examined so far, the spirits of the mountains and rocks seem to have no solid connection with humans, for unlike tree or ancestral fairies, they are not related to humans. Yet despite this they often are some of the most caring and helpful of the fairies. The Bjergfolk, for example, actively involved themselves in human affairs, helping with farming and fortune telling. Because they are not related to humans the way trees or deceased humans are, the reasons why such fairies take an interest in humans are often hard to ascertain. While it is true that occasionally some earth spirits are related to the human dead, this is not always the case. When people first landed in Iceland, there had never been humans their before yet there were rock fairies that began to help the human settlers almost immediately. One man named Bjorn made an agreement with one such rock fairy called a bergbui which appeared to him in a dream. The rock fairy provided him with a goat which helped to grow his herd rapidly and who also sent the land spirits to assist his brothers in their fishing and hunting endeavors. (Davidson and Davidson, 1989)
Looking at our positive relationship with stone and earth fairies only seems to tell us that they are interested in a positive relationship with humans. In order to understand why they want to build a positive relationship, we perhaps are best served by examining human’s negative relationships with these fairies. There is ample evidence which shows that stone fairies are extremely sensitive. In the 19th century, an Icelandic clergymen wrote that certain rocks and stones were called the stones of Landdisir (land goddesses). It was said to be unwise to make loud noises near them, and children were forbidden to play around them as bad luck would come to those who did not treat them with respect. (Davidson and Davidson, 1989) We see these beliefs mirrored in the Celtic world of that time as well where it was thought to be bad luck to disturb certain stones as they were the homes to the fairies. (Wentz, 1911)
In other words, humans can impact rock spirits which are sensitive both to noise and being built upon. It may be that part of the rock spirits’ relationships with humans existed in order to avoid these things. Such sensitivity is problematic when humans are able to be so destructive. The vaetter of Iceland grew angry when they saw one human murder another, and for a long time ships with dragon’s heads were banned in the country for fear that they would disturb the stone spirits or give them the wrong impression of the human’s intentions. (Davidson and Davidson, 1911) Because of their sensitivity, rock fairies do more than offer rewards to humans who keep the peace with them; they punish those who fail to do so. When humans do damage rocks or otherwise disturb them, the spirits of the land would haunt the humans acting much as we’d expect a poltergeist to act sometimes for thousands of years at a time. (Wentz, 1911)
Forces of Nature
At one time when the fishermen of Brittany were faced with fog, they would threaten to cut it in two with a knife. The Irish would battle the waves with axes in order to kill the fairy spirits within them to prevent the tides from rising too high. (Maccullock, 1911) Fairies were found in every force of nature from the wind that blew to the heat and the cold. As shown by the previous examples, the relationship between people and the forces of nature was different from that of other fairies because people were more likely to feel the need to threaten or even do battle with the forces of nature. At the same time, however, people also sought to appease the forces of nature whenever possible. In England, children would offer Jack Frost a spoonful of kissel as they asked him not to destroy their winter crops. (Keightley, 1870) Such respect does appear to have had an impact on the fairies in many cases. Ded Moroz, the current Russian Santa Claus figure, was at one time a cruel fairy that would freeze people to death. Respect or a change in human opinion of him transformed him into the gentle being he is now.
In one Russian Cinderella story, a girl was sent into the woods to freeze to death by her wicked stepmother. As she sat in the cold, Frost leapt from fur tree to fur tree snapping his fingers as he went. Then as he came into sight, he started mocking the girl, but she always responded to his teasing respectfully even calling him “Frost Dearest!” So he ultimately felt sorry for her and wrapped her in warm blankets to keep her alive through the cold before leaving her with gifts that would make her wealthy. Later in the story, Frost freezes the girl’s disrespectful sister-in-law to death for telling him that she’s cold. (Ralston, 2004) So while people were willing to threaten the forces of nature when they thought they could get away with it, they also realized that careful respect was important in everything they did.
In the Spanish folktale (Lang, 1897) “A Sprig of Rosemary,” the main character asks Sun for help, but Sun sends her on to Moon, who sends her on to Wind. And it is ultimately Wind, not Sun or Moon, who takes the time to help her. In the “White Bear,” a girl searches for her husband and ends up being carried by the East Wind to help her on her journey then by the West and the South Winds. In the end, none of these can help her so she is forced to seek help from the cantankerous North Wind who at first doesn’t care about her. However, on hearing that she has lost her love, he transforms into a fatherly figure and provides her with the help necessary to regain her husband. (Fairy tales their orgin and meaning by John Thackray Bunce) This story shows that the wind and fairies in general can feel fatherly (or motherly) towards humans, perhaps in much the same way as we can feel fatherly towards those in need or will take in stray animals. Indeed, even the grouchiest and perhaps one of the cruelest fairies can still feel kind-hearted emotions under the right set of circumstances.