Fairies don't live in some distant land, instead they exist all around us. Their houses can be right out our back doors as illustrated by the story of "Why the Front Door Was Back". In this story a farmer wonders why his cows keep getting sick.
"I'll tell you," said a voice behind him. It seemed half way between a
squeak and a growl.
He turned round and there he saw a little, angry man. He was dressed
in red, and stood hardly as high as the farmer's knee. The little old
man glared at the big fellow and cried out in a high tone of voice:
"You must change your habits of disposing of your garbage, for other
people have chimneys besides you."
"What has that to do with sickness among my cows?"
"Much indeed. Your family is the cause of your troubles, for they
throw all their slops down my chimney and put out my fire."
The farmer was puzzled beyond the telling, for he owned all the land
within a mile, and knew of no house in sight.
"Put your foot on mine, and then you will have the power of vision, to
The farmer's big boot was at once placed on the little man's slipper,
and when he looked down he almost laughed at the contrast in size.
What was his real surprise, when he saw that the slops thrown out of
his house, did actually fall down; and, besides, the contents of the
full bucket, when emptied, kept on dripping into the chimney of a
house which stood far below, but which he had never seen before.
But as soon as he took his foot off that of the tiny little man, he
saw nothing. Everything like a building vanished as in a dream."
Fairy kingdoms exist within hills, forests, under lakes which we might perceive in small but within the fairies perception these kingdoms can be massive. As the above story illustrates fairyland isn't always so much a place as it is a state of mind.
Fairies and humans in Celtic lore very often lived as symbiotic neighbors. For example, in the story of "The Pixy Threshers" the pixies take it upon themselves to help a farmer thresh his grain. The farmer in the tale understands the fairies well, and so he doesn't disturb them or ever try to look on them. Fairies often hate to be seen by humans (who have the power of the evil eye). He also pays the fairies in a bit of food left out for them.
In other tales fairies would leave coins in people's shoes, in their cupboards, etc. In "Kaddy's Luck" some fairies leave a girl coins, allowing her to become fairly well off.
Indeed many fairies act very much like Santa Claus who isn't based on a single tradition because he was part of many traditions of fairy gift givers. The Apple Tree Man, the Twylyth Teg, and many more all gave coins, luck or other gifts to people.
What's important to understand is that the fairies didn't want to be separate from humanity, their story was in many ways our story. Humans and fairies often lived in a symbiotic relationship with each other. For example in one story;
IANTO LLYWELYN lived by himself in a cottage at Llanfihangel. One night after he had gone to bed he heard a noise outside the door of the house. He opened his window and said, "Who is there? And what do you want?" He was answered by a small silvery voice, "It is room we want to dress our children." lanto went down and opened the door: a dozen small beings entered carrying tiny babies in their arms, and began to search for an earthen pitcher with water; they remained in the cottage for some hours, washing the infants and adorning themselves. Just before the cock crew in the morning they went away, leaving some money on the hearth as a reward for the kindness they had received.
After this lanto used to keep his fire of coal balls burning all night long, leaving a vessel of water on the hearth, and bread with its accompaniments on the table, taking care, also, to remove everything made of iron before going to bed. The fairies often visited his cottage at night, and after each visit he found money left for him on the hearth. lanto gave up working, and lived very comfortably on the money which he received in return for his hospitality from the Fair Family.
It's true that we often went to war with each other. Indeed the Celtic fairies were banished into their underground world by the human armies and powerful human druids in Irish lore, and there are remnants of this idea in Wales, Cornwall, and Scotland as well. When the fairies kidnapped a farmer's wife he declared war on them and began attacking their hill.
Before continuing perhaps it would be best to explain that as with humans fairies have complex personalities. Just as a human can be both kind and cruel depending on a myriad of circumstances, so too can fairies. The same king who gives alms to poor travelers might over tax his own poor. Thus the same fairies can be both friend and enemy to humanity.
5 Fairy Stories and what they show us about Celtic Fairies
Fitzgerald and Daniel Donohue
A man named Fitzgerald's garden was blighted so he carved a hawthorn stake and went out to call
"on the chief fairy, Daniel O’Donohue, King of Lochlein, and challenging all the fairies of Ulster, and promising, if he couldn’t do for them all himself, he had neighbours who would go with him and help him. “At that time,” said the host, “there wasn’t a man in ten who didn’t believe in the fairies and think that it was they who caused the blight, so they listened to the old man as he went on challenging the fairies of the North, offering his help to Daniel O’Donohue.”
There is only so much fertility to be had in the fields, so in order to gain more some people and fairies would steal it from others.
What's most interesting about this story, however, is the notion that humans and fairies of one region would unite against the humans and fairies of another one.
Poor Fairies Need a Cow
Poor fairies often need to take milk, cattle, bread, etc from humans. In one story a milk keeps getting taken from a man and “One morning, when Hanifin was going to call the herder to drive the cows to be milked he passed near an old fairy fort that was on the road between the house and the pasture, and just as he called to the herder he heard a child crying inside the fort: it was crying for a drink, and the woman said: ‘Be quiet a while; Hanifin’s cows are going home; we’ll soon have milk in plenty’
Rather than grow angry that the fairy is stealing from him Hanifin gives them a cow. Later when he's unable to pay his debts his creditor seeks to seize his cattle the fairies help him...
“The following morning ten policemen and bailiffs went to take Hanifin’s cattle, but when they were driving them up and got as far as the fort they were thrown head over heels, hither and over till they were terribly cut and beaten, and pitched into thorny bushes and holes till they were fools. The cattle, seeing this, took fright, bawled, raised their tails, and ran back to the pasture. The officers were barely able to leave the place. Never again did police or bailiff meddle with Hanifin’s cows. The creditors never collected the money.”
The Midwife and the Fairy
One of the most common stories throughout Europe is of a fairy hiring a midwife to deliver his wives baby. The midwife, however, gets a bit of fairy ointment in her eye and so gains the ability to see the fairies.
Later the fairy attacks someone while indivisible and the midwife saves them. Realizing that she can see him the fairy blinds her.
There are three important takeaways from this story.
1 - The magic of many fairies is based on formulas. They ate special fruit to be immortal, they wore hats to become invisible, they flew with the aid of magical sticks (not wings), etc.
2 - Fairies often need humans to help them with tasks from blacksmithing to midwifery.
3 - Even fairies which needed humans and paid generously could be dangerous under different circumstances.
The Fairies Cowherd
The first part of this tale is about two workers who get food from the fairies. The most interesting part of the story, however, begins with an poor woman who hears of this and goes to the fairies seeking some food as well.
“Well,” replied the fay, “I will give you another loaf. So long as you or your children partake of it it will not grow smaller and will always remain fresh, but if you should give the least morsel to a stranger the loaf will disappear. But as I have helped you, so must you help me. I have four cows, and I wish to send them out to pasture. Promise me that one of your daughters will guard them for me.”
So one of the woman's daughters goes out to take care of the fairies cows. The girl ultimately becomes the godmother to one of the fairy's children and enters fairyland, where she remained for two days. When she'd left her godchild had already grown up.
On returning home she discovered that she had been in fairyland for 10 years.
After she had overcome her surprise the girl resumed her household duties as if nothing particular had happened, and knitted a pair of stockings for her godchild. When they were finished she carried them to the fairy grotto, where, as she thought, she spent the afternoon. But in reality she had been away from home this time for five years. As she was leaving, her godchild gave her a purse, saying: “This purse is full of gold. Whenever you take a piece out another one will come in its place, but if any one else uses it it will lose all its virtue.”
1-Fairies often hire humans to do choirs for them.
2-Time passes differently in fairyland
3-Fairy children tend to grow up quickly or are born wise and ancient from the very beginning.
4-Never reveal fairy help you receive.
The Bwca is Banished
This is the sad story of a house fairy who is very helpful, but people keep playing pranks on him, forcing him to move from one house to another until at last he becomes a bogle (a mischievous/dangerous fairy).
Eventually a cunning (wise man-good witch) catches him by the nose) and banished to the other world.
There are a number of things which can be learned from this story including;
1-The first house the Bwca lives in has a girl who is believed to be part fairy. The two of them get along well enough, that is until she plays a prank on him (puts urine in his food).
As a general rule half fairies well usually ultimately get into a fight with the fairies. They tend to play pranks on the fairies that get them into trouble, or the compete with the fairies. In either case half-fairies often find themselves not really fitting into human or fairy society.
2-House fairies in Celtic lands tend not to be related to the people in the house. Nor are they even connected to the house. Instead they are often solitary fairies who choose to live among humans for a number of reasons.
3-More than just having different moods fairies can often change form. Thus a kindly bwca can become a dangerous bogle if it's mistreated enough.
Categories of Celtic Fairies
There is no one type of fairy. Indeed, fairies are as diverse as mammals. After all, mermaids, pixies, and cats can all be classified as different types of Celtic fairies, yet these different beings are clearly very different from each other. Further, each fairy will have it's own personality, motivations, and life story which will make them different from other fairies of the same type.
That said there are some general categories of fairies which can be useful for writers and for understanding the general politics of the world of Celtic Fairies. None of these categories of fairies are exclusive, however, as any given fairy can belong to many of them at the same time.
Many fairies live in royal courts which in structure are very similar to the human royal courts. They have kings, queens, various lords, etc. Further they tend to spend their time engaged in frivolity go about hunting, dancing, etc. Often such courts will wage war on each other and make treaties with human kingdoms. Indeed it could be said that there is a second layer of kingdoms and politics within the same lands we occupy.
The tale about the fairies on "The Gump of St. Just" has a fairly long and detailed description of a fairy court in Cornwall;
All was now ablaze with variously-coloured lights. Every blade of grass was hung with lamps, and every furze bush was illuminated with stars Out from the opening in the hill marched a host of spriggans, as if to clear the road. Then came an immense number of musicians playing on every kind of instrument. These were followed by troop after troop of soldiers, each troop bearing aloft their banner, which appeared to spread itself, to display its blazonry, without the assistance of any breeze. All these arranged themselves in order over the ground, some here and some there.
More and more fairies poured from the hill, servants, ladies, everything one would expect from a human court only much more brilliant. Such stories are by no means unique, indeed nearly every region within the UK and Ireland has a story of the fairy court. Many places also have tales about their human kings making treaties or waging war with the fairy court, adding a whole new political dimension to the world.
Keep in mind that these fairies don't live in a distant kingdom. Rather they rule the hills and lakes within the human kingdom. Nor does any region necessarily have a single fairy king, and the different fairy hills within the same kingdom might go to war with each other, causing famine within the region as a whole.
Fairies that choose to live alone for a number of reasons. Some fairies simply prefer to live alone but can still be kind, others are very anti-social and dangerous to both humans and fairies alike.
While there are royal courts of fairies it's important to keep in mind that humanity, and at times other fairy courts have forced many fairies to live as refugees. Often such fairies seem to use illusions to make it seem as if they are living better than they actually are. Others are forced to accept their life as it is.
Scotland, for example, has the Goona;
The Goona is the name given to one class of fairy exiles. A Goona is very kindly and harmless, and goes about at night trying to be of service to mankind. He herds the cattle on the hills, and keeps them away from dangerous places. Often he is seen sitting on the edge of a cliff, and when cattle come near he drives them back. In the summer and autumn seasons he watches the cornfields, and if a cow should try to enter one, he seizes it by a horn and leads it to hill pasture. In winter time, when the cattle are kept in byres, the Goona feels very, lonely, having no work to do.
Crofters speak kindly of the Goona, and consider themselves lucky when one haunts their countryside. They tell that he is a little fairy man with long golden hair that falls down over his shoulders and back. He is clad in a fox's skin, and in wintry weather he suffers much from cold, for that is part of his punishment. The crofters pity him, and wish that he would come into a house and sit beside a warm fire, but this he is forbidden to do. If a crofter were to offer a Goona any clothing the little lonely fellow would have to go away and he could never return again. The only food the exiled fairy can get are scraps and bones flung away by human beings.
Typically we never learn why exactly these fairies are being punished by the fairy court.
Not all such fairies were solitary, however. Indeed, one could argue that the vast majority of Celtic fairies are refugees of one form or another, for at one time humans conquered their lands and drove them underground. While many fairy courts have escaped the poverty that this caused, others have not. So there are whole kingdoms of fairies which seem impoverished and which must steal from humans for their sustenance.
While most fairies in stories lived close to humanity there were some who lived in distant places. A fairy woman in the "The Voyage of Bran" for example, lived on a distant island of happiness and bliss (although humans could still sail to this land as Bran did).
The description of this land is fairly long, however, one part states that;
Lovely land throughout the world's age,
On which the many blossoms drop.
7. 'An ancient tree there is with blossoms,
On which birds call 2 to the Hours.
’Tis in harmony it is their wont
To call together every Hour.
8. 'Splendours of every colour glisten
Throughout the gentle-voiced plains.
Joy is known, ranked around music,
In southern Mag Argatnél.
9. 'Unknown is wailing or treachery
In the familiar cultivated land,
There is nothing rough or harsh,
But sweet music striking on the ear.
10. 'Without grief, without sorrow, without death,
Without any sickness, without debility,
Many fairies are ancestral spirits. Banshees are one of the most interesting of these. Banshees are sweet maidens who continue to care for their families long after their death. They bless babies with gifts, help the heads of families make decisions, and weep when someone they love is about to die.
Other ancestral spirits live within the fairy court. While these are often the spirits of people have died, some people are taken by the fairies without ever dying. Fairies commonly take musicians, poets, blacksmiths, children, and more. While these people sometimes forget about their families they don't always, and so can plead with the other fairies to aid those they left behind.
6-Fairies of the wilderness.
Many people are surprised to learn that these fairies aren't that common in Celtic lore. Yes, of course fairies view certain natural features as their home, but they live within these features very much like humans live in cities and castles, they aren't specifically nature spirits per say. Glaistigs and the Brown Man of the Muirs are two notable exceptions to this.
Glaistig tended to be the spirits of water ways or occasionally of rocks. They would herd deer the way people might heard cattle and sheep. While the Brown Man of the Muirs was a guardian of the animals of the moor, who in one case cursed some hunters to whither and die from illness.
There are also the spirits of trees, who can become angry ghosts when the tree they dwell in is cut down. These ghosts are often extremely dangerous, stopping people's heart or causing insanity with a touch.
There are also a number of tree fairies including; the apple tree man, the spirit of nut trees, willows, and the like. All of these fairies are important, but there are less stories about them than the other types of fairies.