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. So while life might seem wonderful to a human, just as any moment in the womb may seem wonderful to a child, it is, at least in mythology, just another step. For fairies, this step can be viewed as necessary to finally bring humans fulfillment. While not all fairies come from the spirits of dead humans, as fairies existed in Iceland even before the first humans set foot in the area (Davidson and Davidson, 1989), it should still come as no surprise that death would bring humans to the immortal possibility of becoming a fairy, of becoming one with nature, with music, and magic.
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. That this is their goal becomes all the more clear by the fact that what they ask for in return is to be able to go to an important event for her child just as a doting elder would do.
Certainly, not all fairy motivations are as 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. So even in cases where an ancestor has forgotten what it was like to be human, even when a fairy has never been human, indeed one could argue that even the oddest of fairies may have their motivations altered by the ancestors of humans who live among them.
It should come as no surprise then that the fairies of any given land reflect the people of that land. That the fairies of any given land seem to care more about the people of their country than those of others is one of the primary reasons humans are likely to encounter fairies because they are either related to us and our kin, or they know another fairy who is. In other words, humans typically encounter fairies because fairies do care about us.
Ancestor worship is a common practice among the animist peoples including the people of Europe's past. The souls of the dead in many religions became 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 (Ralston, 1872)."
These patriarchs were not some distant being for they lived among humans and were closely connected with the fire burning in the domestic hearth. This fact accounts for the following:
“The stove at the turn of the century in Russia, having come to be considered the special haunt of the domovoi, or house spirit, whose position in the esteem of the people is looked upon as a trace of the ancestor worship of olden days.”
A domovoi is a small, old man covered in hair who lives under the hearth or within the threshold of a house. The Slavic peoples were historically so close to him that each family would refer to him as Grandfather. These household fairies exist all over Europe from England to Russia providing protection against evil spirits, divination, blessings, and even in some cases helping directly with the housework. The ancestors who lived in the fireplace were so important to the people of Russia that:
“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)
The spirits of the bathhouse, known as banniks, were also called “grandfather” not simply as a sign of respect as was common among the Russian people but as a sign that they were a protector of the family. In one Russian fairy tale, a girl flees into the bathhouse to escape a vampire-like boy which is chasing her and calls out, “Save me, Grandfather Bannik,” at which point the fairy jumped out of hiding and wrestled the vampire like creature until dawn when he is forced to flee. The bannik also acted as a soothsayer for the family helping to divine evil and remove curses from them.
Although modern stories have demonized the banshee, they are not, in fact, monsters but deceased family members who wail and cry to mourn the death of a loved family member. They are simply doing their mourning before the death occurs because they can see the future. They are not, however, responsible for the death and, in some instances; their appearance is meant to serve as a warning in order to save a person from death. Further, the banshee often blesses her decedents.
“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 heads of the family and advise them on playing chess. (F.S. Wilde, 1887) Not every family had a banshee, according to (Briggs, 1967). “Only families of historic lineage or those gifted with music and poetry - which are the fairies’ gifts - are attended by banshees.” Banshees in these stories most often took the form of a sweet, singing virgin rather than the scary ghost of modern films.
It is clear then that banshees did far more than mourn the passing of their family members but actively engaged in making the lives of their families better. When they had finished, they often returned to the moors where the other fairies lived. That these beautiful poetic and musical beings would have influence over the other beauty and music-loving fairies can only be speculated, but it seems likely that such influences did occur.
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)
One might think that if fairies are dead humans they would be happy when humans died. However, like the banshee, the domovoi could also be heard to wail when a loved one was about to die. (Ralston, 1872) This is interesting not only because it denotes that the fairies were concerned about and loved their decedents, but because it also indicates that not all humans become fairies. Recalling that death itself can be likened in some senses to a birth, when some humans die they will in turn join the banshee and the domovoi. Yet clearly this is not always the case; for if a human were to become a fairy in death and join the banshee or domovoi, then it’s likely these beings would celebrate and be happy that they would soon be joined by a loved one. Perhaps then it is rare for a human soul to become a fairy. If this is the case, then perhaps it is because fairies know the times in which a person will become a fairy; that they choose to let people die at some times while saving them at others for just as a birth needs to be timed so too does death. In this case, causing death for some fairies is not about destructiveness or cruelty, but it is instead a matter of helping a human be born into a better eternity.
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 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. 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 on the fringes just as they themselves died.
Up until now we have discussed primarily situations in which people encountered fairies which were only their ancestors. However, the spirits of the deceased also live among the fairy court and trooping fairies. 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. That like the fairy in Espeth’s story, they are neither dead nor alive. Consider changeling stories, for example, stories in which a human child is taken by the fairies. It’s not just children, however. Many older people are taken to be servants with changelings left in their places. Often such changelings are made of wood or earth and only appear to be the person’s dead body in order to dissuade anyone from looking for them. In one story, a man rescues his wife just as she is being carried off by a troop of fairies which had “come through the window, thronging like bees from a hive.”
Not all fairies abduct people unwillingly, however. There are tales of people entering fairy land on their own. In one tale, a fairy maiden attempts to lure the Prince Connla into fairy land stating that she is the one:
“Whom neither death nor old age awaits. I love Connla, and now I call him away to the Plain of Pleasure, Moy Mell, where Boadag is king for aye, nor has there been complaint or sorrow in that land since he has held the kingship. Oh, come with me, Connla of the Fiery Hair, ruddy as the dawn with thy tawny skin. A fairy crown awaits thee to grace thy comely face and royal form. Come, and never shall thy comeliness fade, nor thy youth, till the last awful day of judgment."
(Joseph Jacobs, 1892)
Three things should be obvious from this story. First and foremost is that fairies can love humans and can long to be with them. Such love can occur even when, as was the case with Connla the fairy and the human, who have never met because at least some fairies have a huge advantage over humans in selecting their future mates as fairies have some divination powers. After all, at one time when people wanted to know who they should marry, they asked fairies to guide them. So, to a fairy, it can be blatantly obvious who they need to love and marry even when they have never met them.
Second, the story of Connla should tell us that fairies will lure the mortals they love to live with them in the fairy realm and that once such humans enter the fairy realm, they become immortal so long as they continue to live as the fairies do. Third, such mortals, despite being tempted by a beautiful, magical being and a “Plain of Pleasure,” can still be emotionally attached to the mortal world. So they or the fairies’ who love them, as well as the children of such unions and friends they make within fairyland, will likely take an interest in mortal affairs from then on. So, here again, we see the world of fairies being directly affected by the world of humans.