Today marks the return of guest columnist Richard H. Fay, a man who exemplifies the polymath spirit of Classically Educated by being an artist, a poet and also, as he proves below and in his previous post for us, an expert on very different aspects of history. You can read his blog here, and we also recommend checking out his Zazzle Store. Best of all is that this is only the first article in a weekly series, which we’ll be running over the next couple of months!
At first glance, there may seem to be few links between the frolicking fairies and the souls of the dead. However, if one delves deeper into traditional fairy lore, one finds that the fairy realm and the realm of the dead overlapped. A handful of fairy types functioned as harbingers of death or summoners of dying souls. On occasion, fairies would intermingle with the human dead. At times, the spirits of deceased mortals gathered in fairy places or even behaved rather like fairy folk. Lost human souls, especially those of children who had died prior to undergoing the Christian rite of baptism, might take fairy form and join the ranks of the fays.
Some denizens of the fairy realm had links to the realm of the dead by heralding the approach of death or summoning the spirit of a dying human to the otherworld. The keening fairy woman known as the banshee foretold the forthcoming demise of Irish mortals of Milesian descent, humans of heroic lineage whose surnames started with ” Ó” or “Mac”(White, 2005). A glimpse of the Highland Bodach Glas, the Dark Grey Man, signalled impending doom (Briggs, 1976). The gruesome-looking dullahan would ride the countryside on his thundering black steed and then stop to hold his severed head aloft to summon the soul of whoever was about to die (Curran, 1998). The mine-dwelling wichtlein of Germany warned miners of imminent death or disaster by raising a din as if they were hard at work (Sikes, 2002). Dunters or powries, noisome resident spirits of Border fortresses who sounded as if they were beating flax or milling grain in a quern, would raise a louder ruckus if death or disaster drew near (Briggs, 1976).
According to tales from Ireland and its remote western isles, at certain times human souls who had departed their mortal shells would accompany the fairies in their preternatural revelries. During dark celebrations held on the night of October the Thirty-First, fairies reeled hand-in-hand with the risen dead (White, 2005). A man of Ireland’s western islands named Hugh King discovered that his deceased friends and dead acquaintances, clad in their long funeral shrouds, danced at the fairy fair held on November Eve (Wilde, 1887). Out late one November night, an Inishark woman sighted revenants garbed in white mingled amongst a great gathering of cavorting fairies (Wilde, 1887). A grief stricken lass from the same isle spied her late lover gambolling with the fairies atop their hill when she peered through a ring of herbs given to her by a lady in white (Wilde, 1887). A shepherdess who encountered a group of festive fays met a pale young man; a man she knew had drowned the previous winter (Wilde, 1887). In a tale found in different locales across Ireland, a man witnessed deceased acquaintances riding with the fays when he tried unsuccessfully to rescue his dead wife from a fairy procession (Ó hÓgáin, 2006). The Irish fairy monarch Finvara was also King of the Dead and ruled over a host of departed mortals (Briggs, 1978).
Some stories of earthbound souls blurred the line between fairy and ghost. Noisy spectres of those who had once been human would haunt fairy raths with their clanking and creaking (White, 2005). The Northumberland bogy called Dunnie, a shape-shifting prankster who liked to adopt the guise of a horse or donkey to play practical jokes on Hazelrigg farmers, had been a plundering Border reiver in life (Briggs, 1976). The Irish Phooka of Kildare, who appeared as an ass and performed the toilsome tasks of a household fairy, identified itself as the spirit of an indolent scullion (Briggs, 1978). The English Cauld Lad of Hilton, a brownie-like entity that the servants of Hilton Hall expelled in the traditional fashion of laying brownies by leaving him a gift of a new cloak and hood, was said to be the ghost of a murdered servant boy (Keightley, 1978). The Cauld Lad of Gilsland, reputed to be the restless soul of a neglected boy who died of hypothermia, acted like a banshee and foretold death by shivering and moaning at the bedside of one about to die (Rose, 1998).
In perhaps the most direct link between fairies and the dead, certain types of fay were considered to be human spirits endowed with fairy powers. The sluagh of the Scottish Highlands, dark entities that winged to and fro across the midnight sky and forced hapless mortals to join in malicious mischief, were said to be the Host of the Unforgiven Dead (Briggs, 1976). The bean-nighe, who portended doom by washing blood-stained clothes in the forlorn streams of both and Ireland and Scotland, was believed to be the restless shade of a mother who had perished during childbirth (Briggs, 1976). Cornish tin-miners claimed that their helpful mine fairies known as knockers had once been Jews who had toiled in the mines in ancient times (Briggs, 1976). The Welsh commonly considered their Tylwyth Teg to be the spirits of departed humans neither entirely evil nor completely good, spirits consigned to reside in this world’s hidden places until Judgement Day (Sikes, 2002). The samovily, a fatally seductive southern Slavonic water fairy, was thought to be either a human bride who had lost her life on the night of her nuptials or a deceased mortal girl who had never been baptised (Franklin, 2002). The beautiful vily of Slavonic lore danced in circles and possessed powers of enchantment and shape-shifting just like their Fair Folk kin of Western Europe, but some accounts insisted that these alluring beings were the ghosts of prideful maids or unbaptized youngsters (Franklin, 2002).
In a recurring theme in fairy lore, the souls of departed human children who never entered the Christian fold could become mischievous and even malevolent members of the fairy realm. The sheerie, luminous Irish sprites who used maleficent magic to lead wayfarers astray, were thought to be the bitter spirits of unbaptized babes (Curran, 1998). According to Devonshire lore, their own diminutive mischief-making pixies shared similar origins (Keightley, 1978). The potentially deadly tarans who roamed Scottish forests and the nocturnal spunkies who misled wanderers in Somerset were also believed to be the souls of children who never underwent the ritual of baptism (Franklin, 2002). The same explanation was applied to the origins of numerous will-o’-the-wisps such as Pinket, a will-o’-the-wisp who haunted Worcestershire (Franklin, 2002).
Though some people insist that “ghosts are not fairies” (White, 2005), certain aspects of fairy folklore suggest that wayward human souls did, at times, acquire a fairy existence. The connection went beyond mere association. Ghostly entities such as the Phooka of Kildare, Dunnie of Northumberland, and the Cauld Lad of Hilton appeared to possess fairy-like attributes and exhibit fairy-like behaviour. Fairy folk such as the sheerie, the sluagh, and the samovily had once been human. Fairies not only foretold the coming of death and consorted with the dead, sometimes, they were the dead.
(Article originally published in Disturbed Digest, Issue #4, March 2014.)
Briggs, K. (1976). An encyclopedia of fairies, hobgoblins, brownies, bogies, and other supernatural creatures. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.
Briggs, K. (1978). The vanishing people: Fairy lore and legends. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.
Curran, B. (1998). A field guide to Irish fairies. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books.
Franklin, A. (2002). The illustrated encyclopaedia of fairies. London, England: Vega.
Keightly, T. (1978). The world guide to gnomes, fairies, elves, and other little people. New York, NY: Avenel Books.
Ó hÓgáin, D. (2006). The lore of Ireland: An encyclopaedia of myth, legend and romance. Woodbridge, England: The Boydell Press.
Rose, C. (1998). Spirits, fairies, leprechauns, and goblins: An encyclopedia. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.
Sikes, W. (2002). British goblins: Welsh folklore, fairy mythology, legends and traditions. Doylestown, PA: Wildside Press.
White, C. (2005). A history of Irish fairies. New York, NY: Carroll & Graf Publishers.
Wilde, Lady F. S. (1887). Ancient legends, mystic charms, and superstitions of Ireland. Boston, MA: Ticknor and Co.