Mountain Fairies, Rock Fairies, and Fairies of the Land
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, mountain fairies and rock spirits 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.
It is true of course 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)
In another tale, a woman was searching for her husband which had been taken by a nix. She too had a dream that led her to a mountain where an old woman told her how to get her husband back and gave her the magical gifts which she needed free him. (Grimm and Grimm, 1912) This tale is similar to those of Japan in which someone has a dream on or near a mountain in which the Kami of the mountain (which is similar to the mountain fairies of Europe) gives them advice or magical support. In another tale, the Spirit of the Steppes caused that a queen and her handmaidens should all become pregnant. Ultimately, the queen’s daughter was banished by her jealous husband to a distant land where she was raised by the trees and the breezes. (Ralston, 2004)
Fairies of the stones were so active in mortal affairs, in fact, that their name in Iceland means both “harvest” and “seer” as they would provide council to humans in their dreams and even actively guard peoples’ cattle. While this explains why humans worshiped these beings, it gives us little understanding of why the fairies would provide aid to the humans. 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 clergyman 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 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) Rock and earth spirits then grow angry when they are disturbed or when they witness a human murder and begin to damage crops, haunt houses making it extremely difficult to find a safe place to build or farm. Children playing near a group of rocks could, for example, be cursed. A farmer who moves a boulder could have his farm and house become haunted, etc. And when someone dies violently, the rock spirits feel intense sympathy for the person. So tales of poltergeist activity from the human dead may, in fact, have originally been tales of poltergeist activity from stone spirits.
Beyond simply being sensitive to noises, stone and earth spirits appear to be very emotionally sensitive. These spirits are most often referred to in the plural because they live in family groups. (Davidson and Davidson, 1989) So it would appear that the typical stone or earth fairy prefers to live a sedentary lifestyle with strong family ties. Further, their hatred of violence shows a love of living creatures or at least those of human intelligence (they didn’t appear to mind humans butchering goats or cattle or hunting for animals and even helped humans in these tasks). From this we can presume that they cared about humans in much the same way that a motherly or fatherly figure might care about children in their neighborhood or the way a human might care about a stray kitten.
Humans then threaten the fairies’ lifestyle so it is perhaps for this reason which they come to humans in order to make a deal with them such that the humans will leave them alone. Unlike trees or other types of fairies which simply came to people when they needed something, stone and earth fairies often appeared to people in their dreams rather than approaching them directly. This shows a certain amount of anxiety about having direct contact with humans just as it shows a desire to help them.