Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Seelie and Unseelie Fairy Courts

One of the most popular urban fantasy tropes is to divide the fairies into good summer and evil winter courts, or the good Seelie and the Evil unseelie.
Having good fairies and evil fairies seems so   convenient that I get asked a lot if the unseelie courts are from folklore or are something invented by sleep deprived, coffee fueled writers fan ficking relationships with magical bad boys and girls?

The answer is that of course most writers are fan ficking the magical world of their dreams or nightmares while strung out on coffee. That’s what writer’s do.
Still not only is the Unseelie and Seelie court a part of Scottish folk tradition, the dichotomy of good and evil is common throughout the Celtic lands and Northern Eurasia.
A smidgen over 200 years ago (in 1819) the edinbourgh magazine stated that the Seelie Court of Fairies was primarily made up of:
Babies who had cruel parents that the nice fairies would take to fairyland to be raised properly
The spirits of people who fell in battle.
And good people who died but weren’t good enough to go to heaven. But were still okay, I mean they weren’t evil.
The Unseelie court however, was made up of
Those who died in wicked wars.
People who were considered wicked.
Unmarried women who died in child birth and children who died without being baptized.
And children who were cursed by their parents in anger. 
Okay so a lot of that is pretty messed up, but such beliefs were relatively common. People who died while suffering or young children not yet made a part of the community often became dangerous ghosts and vampires. Indeed, the spirits of dead children were one of the most common forms of ghosts in places as far away as Japan.
SO creepy children have been a part of pop culture for a long time.
Plus fear of the unclean or corrupt dead is practically universal so it would make sense for these to get rolled into kingdoms of evil spirits in some places.
Not all spirits of the dead were bad, however, the folklorist Eva Pocs points out that
“From the Celts to the people of the Baltic, the outlines of a common Indo-European inheritance seem to emerge. This is connected to a cult of the dead, the dead bringing fertility , to sorcery, and shamanis in relation to the different gods of the dead”
In other words the spirits of the dead and the gods of the dead were heavily connected with the success of crops, which makes them good.
In Milan in 1384 and 1390, there were women who were believed to be part of a society of both living and dead people. They ate animals that were brought back to life by the goddess and traveled about villages in order to promote fertility, health and social welfare (Horsley, 1979).
Like the spirits of the dead which the Fairies too could be good as well as bad.
The folklorist Katherine Briggs stated that “there is a definite folk tradition of benevolent and malevolent fairies… the pretty bright fairies were always draped in white, with wands in their hands and flowers in their hair.”
So yes, the good flowery fairies that little girls love to draw are actually a thing. People in rural England would even have little girls perform a sort of ritual play in order to ask the fairies to protect against evil fairies.
In   , people would sweep the hearth and place clean water out for the fairies to drink and draw baths from before going to bed. The idea was that fairies might come down the chimney at any time. Those who herd their tiny footsteps gamboling about at night would receive prosperity.
The Dialect and Folk-lore of Northamptonshire
By Thomas Sternberg
In other words there was a clear tradition of good and evil spirits which was common across Northern Eurasia.
The Komi people have a series of myths about two brothers who created the world. Sometimes these brothers were frogs in a swamp or ducklings traveling an endless ocean with their mother.
One day their mother leyed some eggs, but because the there was no land the eggs sank into the water.
The brothers Jen and Omel dove into the water to retrieve these eggs.
Their mother died, and from her came all the land.
From the eggs Jen created the angels, humans, and good things of the earth.
Omel, meanwhile, being jealous used the eggs he’d retrieved to create the evil spirits and bad things of the world. Although his character can be far more complicated than this as he can be a god of fish as well.
Eventually Jen went to live as a sky god and Omel tried to follow him. Jen struck Omel down, knocking him an followers into the underworld.
Most other Uralic people have a similar myth of two brothers who create the world, one creating evil and the other creating good.
The Turkic and other Altaic people of the Steppes also have good and evil gods as well as spirits of the dead who act cruel and spirits of the dead who act kind.
What all this means is the idea of dividing the world into good and evil spreads well beyond the bounds of Christianity and so could be a very old idea in Scotland. Indeed it is a common idea throughout the Celtic nations and Northern Europe.
In Brittany France a man named Wentz tells us about stories of wicked fairies called Corrigans and the good lutins who took animal form, sometimes to hide from the Corrigan who hated that the good fairies would act kindly towards humanity.  
In Cornwall there were pixies, who will mischievous could also be helpful, and Spriggians who in stories often lived like bandits, robbing and murdering people.
The Isle of Man had the kind beautiful fairies who lived on clouds, mountains, and fog but also ogre monsters that could change shape but ofent took the form of giant headed or no headed ogres that would eat people.

Like fairies witches were often divided into two systems, good and wicked. In Eastern Europe these evil witches often worked with snakes and would steal the life from crops, causing blight and leaving people to starve, while the good witches would battle against them.
In Britain and Ireland the good witches would often be taught their magic by the fairies so that they could cure the harm done by cruel fairies or witches.
A folklorist named Emily Wilby points out that good and wicked witches were both taken into fairyland, but they each had different experiences there as if they were going to different courts. Wicked witches celebrated with evil beings outside in forests and on moors. Meanwhile good witches went into the hills to celebrate in fairy halls.
So there was clearly a difference between not only good and wicked witches but between the fairies slash devils who taught them there craft.
So there was a tradition of unseelie and seelie like fairies.
One shouldn’t get too hung up on this, however, because fairies were mutable those that were normally kind could be cruel and those that were normally cruel could engage in random acts of kindness.
There is another thing to keep in mind here.
Europe had a widespread traditional belief that one could steal the ability to produce a rich harvest from a farm by taking dew or dirt from it. Thus fairies and witches could improve their own harvest by stealing the life from their neighbors land. There are a number of stories that indicate that witches and fairies would therefore fight against this. If they failed the people of their county would starve to death as famine struck.
An old Irish man’s from Muster had garden which suffered from blight. At the time it was believed that the Ulster fairies were stronger than the Muster fairies and so had caused the blight.
Furious that the Ulster fairies had ruined his crop the old man took up his blackthorn cane and ran into his garden, calling to the King of the Muster fairies  “Daniel O'Donohue” to take him to fight the Ulster fairies, saying that he and his neighbors would gladly help with the war.
There are a lot of tales of people either aiding the fairies in battles or sporting events against those from other parts of the country, So, fairyland was often divided along county or clan lines in places like Ireland, England, and Scotland.
And Scotland had a lot of clans. I mean a lot of clans,
This means that fairyland could also be thought of as the us vs them that humans had going on. Yes people often thought of their enemies as evil, but that doesn’t mean they were per say.
Further, it doesn’t seem that the good and evil courts were necessarily associated with summer and winter, at least not entirely. Certainly in many places the undead such as vampires were far more likely to be seen around Christmas time, which is a winter holiday. The dead would return to visit their relatives on the November 1st holidays in the Celtic world and places the Spanish settled such as Mexico.
In Wales, however, the lord of winter did seem to be the king of a fairy court, yet he in stories he aided King Arthur in fighting monsters and was waring against creatures that might have represented the unseelie court.
 That said if we look at fairies in Wales, we see that there is a god of winter who lead the fairies and was also a god of the forest named Gwyn ap Nudd and a god of summer named Gwythyr ap Greidawl.
These gods fought a huge war, until Arthur stepped in and told them to knock it off, and passed a rule that they could only fight on May first and November first each year.
What’s important for our purposes in this case is that while Gwyn’s fairy servants can cause trouble they are also often helpful. What’s more he is the god of the forest and spring is during the half the year he rules, so he in no way seems to be unseelie, in fact he has a human help him defeat the probable lord of evil in Welsh mythology.
In Scotland winter is personified by a goddess slash hag figure named Calyach vare
She was reborn each All Hallows and smote the earth with a staff to call down the snow. Then in spring, May Eve she put her staff under a holly tree.
She is an interesting and complex figure and is a guardian spirit of deer, wild goats, cattle, and wolves as well as acting as a goddess of fishing.
There are many stories that feature her in one way or another but in none of these is she the Queen of a fairy court or court of the dead so it seems unlikely that she is involved with the unseelie court in any way.
So there is a good and evil court but in some cases at least, they seem to be gods of winter and summer and they aren’t always the most important political entities of fairyland.

Thank you to all the artists and researchers who made the video and article possible.

Cute Cat Photo by Bertil Videt from Wikipedia https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Turkish_Van_Cat.jpg

Persephone by Wolfgang Sauber

Uralic Map by Pepethefrog1234567890 - Own work

Blank_map_of_Europe_(polar_stereographic_projection)_cropped.svg: Ssolbergj derivative work: Dbachmann (talk) - Blank_map_of_Europe_(polar_stereographic_projection)_cropped.svg

Irish Provinces
Ssolbergj https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Provinces_of_Ireland_location_map.svg

Maps Scottish Clans
Gsl - Originally based on the "Clan Map of Scotland" from The Scottish Clans & Their Tartans, W. & A.K. Johnston, 1939. Also used a map from ScottishRadiance. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Scottish_clans#/media/File:Scottish_clan_map.png

Hackpen Hill Horse
Brian Robert Marshall https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hackpen_White_Horse#/media/File:Broad_Hinton_White_Horse,_Hackpen_Hill_-_geograph.org.uk_-_415006.jpg

Written References

Writer's Guide to Fairies, Spirit Journeys, and Witches by Ty Hulse (yes that is me)

Eva Pocs
Books at https://www.amazon.com/eva-pocs-Books/s?k=eva+pocs&rh=n%3A283155

Emma Wilby
Books at https://www.amazon.com/Emma-Wilby/e/B001K8AZME?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1586590567&sr=1-1

Kathrine Briggs

Komi Mythology: Encyclopaedia of Uralic Mythologiesby I. V. Il'Ina (Author), P. F. Limerov (Author), O. I. Ulyashev (Author), Yu P. Shabaev (Author), V. E. Sharapov (Author), A. N. Vlasov (Author)