Faerie Circles: Between the Night and Morrow

Even those who have never read a word of Celtic mythology have heard of faeries, whether through Disney’s Peter Pan or Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. They’ve burrowed deep into our culture as symbols of playfulness, youth, and nature.

Tinkerbell, from the Disney film Peter Pan, stands on a mirror.
Tinker Bell is one of the most well known pop culture faeries. She’s quirky and vain, and depends on human belief in magic to stay alive.

But what exactly are faeries?

Modern adaptations of the mythology seem to disagree. Most faeries are tiny, humanoid creatures (usually women). Some are nature spirits, others just magical tricksters.

Other stories veer further off of the traditional template. The children’s series The Spiderwick Chronicles, for example, describes faeries as strange, alien creatures. They’re feisty tricksters with morality and logic all their own, and appear more insect than human.

Botanical-style prints of several almost humanoid insects.
The faeries of The Spiderwick Chronicles.

Both interpretations are interesting in their own right. The Disney faery is captivating, magical, and fun (right on brand for the company). The Spiderwick version is bizarre, indecipherable, and complex.

But when it comes to the original mythology, neither quite hits the mark.

The fey were a vital part of Celtic mythology; in fact, Irish paganism is sometimes referred to as “the fairy faith”. The faery realm was an inseparable part of the Celtic cosmology.

A moss-covered stone monument on top of a grassy hill.
The “fairy castle” on the Isle of Skye is rumored by some locals to be one of many crossroads between the fey and mortal realms. Photo by Pelle Sten (CC BY 2.0).

The Celtic faeries are capricious beings, especially when it comes to the shape they take. They can take the size or shape of whatever they choose, be it a human or a beetle or a hare, and enjoy “feasting, fighting, and making love, and playing the most beautiful music” (An Encyclopedia of Fairies).

There is, in fact, little the faeries love more than music. One common motif in Celtic faerie stories is that of talented musicians being stolen or seduced away from the mortal realm to entertain the fey for all eternity.

For they fey show no regard for human constraints such as time. Many stories of stolen humans agree that the hours and years seem to pass by more slowly in the faerie realm. One Scottish ballad, The Fairies, tells the story of a little girl who was taken by the fey as a little girl:

They stole little Bridget

for seven years long;

When she came down again

Her friends were all gone.

They took her lightly back,

Between the night and morrow,

They thought she was fast asleep,

But she was dead with sorrow.

They have kept her ever since

Deep within the lake,

On a bed of flag-leaves,

Watching till she wake

It’s easy to brush faeries off as nothing more than magical stories for little girls, with little to no real substance. But the timelessness of the fey realm and the recurring motif of humans returning home only to find their family and friends hint at a darker layer to this legend.

The faeries are said to dwell deep underground, below small mounds (referred to as “fairy hills” in Scotland and Ireland) or naturally-occurring circles of mushrooms, stones, or other small objects.

An example of fairy hills, found in the Fairy Glen on the Isle of Sky. Photo by Hilmar Ilgenfritz (CC BY-SA 2.0).

This becomes an especially important point when we remember that the Celts associated the element of earth with death and the afterlife. Furthermore, there are uncanny similarities between descriptions of the faerie realm and the Celtic afterlife, Tir Na Nog.

In Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, Yeats described Tir Na Nog as “the country of the young,” an eternal paradise full of revelry, fighting, and music. He also tells the story of a man who manages to return to the mortal realm from the afterlife, and it’s unnervingly similar to the ballad of Bridget:

One man has gone there and returned. The bard, Oisen, who wandered away on a white horse, moving on the surface of the foam with his fairy Niamh, lived there three hundred years, and then returned looking for his comrades. The moment his foot touched the earth his three hundred years fell upon him, and he was bowed double, and his beard swept the ground.”

A ring of mushrooms on a grassy field.
According to some stories, stepping in a faerie circle would whisk you away into the fey realm. Photo by Martin LaBar (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Furthermore, although the exact origin of faeries is a disputed subject, it is generally agreed upon by folklorists that the fey are the souls of the dead. The earliest pagan traditions speak of a magical race–the Tuatha de Danann–who were forced to retreat underground upon the arrival of humans in Ireland. As human belief in their kind dwindled, they shrunk, eventually turning into tiny humans–the faeries. Other, more Christian influenced stories say that the faeries are the fallen angels who were too bad to remain in heaven but too good for hell.

In a sense, then, the original faeries weren’t just magical nature spirits. They were ghosts, in the most literal sense.

Why, though?

A white haired young girl--a faerie--sits in a castle windowsill, waving faintly glowing mist between her hands into the vague shape of a rabbit.
The character Aisling from the Irish film The Secret of Kells is perhaps the most faithful of modern adaptations of the Celtic faerie.

The faeries were such an intrinsic part of Celtic folklore, and stories told about them weren’t stories of mourning. They all had at least a hint of tragedy, but they were still tales of joy, pranks, and celebration; of parties lasted that lasted for days or years and dancing until your feet bled.

I think the best clue here is to look back at the ballad of Bridget.

Although some faerie stories feature adults being taken away by the fey, most of them are about children, sometimes even babies. Yeats, too, observed this common theme: “Sometimes the fairies fancy mortals, and carry them away into their own country, leaving instead some sickly fairy child, or a log of wood so bewitched that it seems to be a mortal pining away, and dying, and being buried.”

It’s hard enough to come to terms with death, but senseless deaths, the sort where people simply wither away until you no longer recognize them, where there seems to be no hope of recovery–those are even harder to rationalize.

Far worse is the death of a child.

Belief in fairies gave people a way to reconcile deaths that seemed irrational. Even more so, it gave them an outlet for harmless denial. Their child was gone, yes, but not dead.

Instead, they would spend the rest of their days in a world of eternal merriment, singing through the days and dancing through the night.

A young child sits beneath a tree, surrounded by dancing fairies.
“The Fairy Dance” by Grace Jones (1920).

It’s an undeniably dark way to look at the myths, but one full of hope, too, I think. Nearly every religion has some concept of an afterlife or rebirth. Faeries are simply another way of looking at it–a path to heaven, but one full of whimsy and joy instead of judgement and anxiety.

In darkness, there is always light, and faeries are no exception.


Page sources:

Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry by William Butler Yeats

An Encyclopedia of Fairies by Katharine Briggs

The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries by W.Y. Evans-Wentz

Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi

Peter Pan

The Secret of Kells

The Church Grim: Gentle Guardian or Bad Omen?

Just like many people my age, I was absolutely obsessed with Harry Potter while I was growing up. I loved debating which Hogwarts house people belonged to, or whether cats or owls made better pets. I even went so far as to read the entire series about thirteen times over a few years.

None of the books enchanted me quite so much as the The Prisoner of Azkaban, though. I’m not entirely sure why, but I think a large part of it was the Grim, a creature of superstition who stalked Harry through much of the book.

A teacup containing leaves in the shape of a black dog.
The Grim reveals itself to Harry during a tea leaf reading.

The Grim is a large black dog that, according to Harry’s divination teacher, Professor Trelawney, is “an omen–the worst omen–of death!”

It turns out that, just like with many of the other creatures in the series, JK Rowling drew heavily from folklore in creating the Grim.

According to English and Scandinavian legend, the first body to be laid to rest in a churchyard was charged with the eternal task of guarding it from the Devil. This was a lonely profession, and one without rest or respite. To save the souls of their fellow men, the people would instead kill a pure black animal (usually a dog or goat) and bury it in the churchyard. This animal–the church grim–served not just as a substitute, but as a loyal guardian, protecting the bodies and souls of its charges.

A large, black figure with the head of a white goat standing in a snowy forest.
The church grim (known as the Kyrkogrim in Sweden) also makes an appearance in the  iOS game Year Walk. Although church grims from England and Ireland are nearly always dogs, they typically appear as goats in Scandinavian tales.

Despite its obviously Christian connotation, the church grim tradition likely had roots in pagan beliefs. In his collection of Scandinavian folklore, Benjamin Thorpe explained the origins of the dark custom:

Heathen superstition did not fail to show itself in the construction of Christian churches. In laying the foundation, the people would retain something of their former religion, and sacrificed to their old deities, whom they could not forget, some animal, which they buried alive, either under the foundation or without the wall.

By today’s standards, the thought of burying an animal alive–especially an animal so beloved as a dog–seems morally reprehensible. But it’s important to remember the roots of the tradition. The Celts and Scandinavians were just two of many world cultures who regularly sacrificed animals to their gods. The Egyptians commonly buried mummified household pets alongside their owners. Even today, some choose to have their pets buried alongside them.

 

A large black dog reclining on a porch.
Thanks to their reputation as loyal (and fierce) guardians, few animals are both so loved and so feared as dogs. Photo by Joe Parks (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Reclining_black_dog.jpg) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons.
Pets bring us protection and companionship, and there are few times when we need that more than when we are about to die. Grims provided much the same purpose–to provide comfort. They were a reassurance that the bodies and souls of your loved ones would be protected.

The church grim wasn’t always an altruistic spirit, though. Irish folklore speaks of the church grim (also known as the barguest) as an omen, much like in Harry Potter. According to the Irish tradition, the grim appears as a “large black dog with fiery eyes” who, upon the death of anyone living near its churchyard, “would appear, followed by all the dogs in the district, howling and baying” (Katherine Briggs, An Encyclopedia of Fairies).

Nineteenth century writers speak of the church grim as something to be feared. They described it as a monster, with eyes of fire and a monstrous roar. However, I feel that is a misinterpretation of the source material, and that it makes much more sense to interpret the church grim not as something so simple as a guardian or a monster, but as a guide.

Humanity has always needed a way to rationalize death. History has proven time and time again that there is little we fear more than the unknown, and there is nothing quite so unknowable as death. Not just what happens when we step beyond the veil, but what happens before. Will the end be soft and slow, or swift and violent?

As if that were not enough, the pagan Celts–despite their general obsession with cycles and repetition–didn’t believe in rebirth. They actually believed in the afterlife and eternal souls, much like the Abrahamic religions. You had one shot at life; after that came eternity in the underworld (or Tir Na Nog, if you were an extraordinary hero).

So maybe it isn’t such a bad thing to have a familiar creature, one revered by cultures across the globe as a protector and a friend of mankind, to warn you when your time is near, and to accompany you into the darkness.

The symbolism of a dog (a common terrestrial animal) being buried deep beneath the earth seems to back up my theory. In a way, it forms a connection between the opposed realms of sky (the mortal, surface-dwelling world) and earth (the eternal underworld). The church grim can pass between these worlds, essentially serving as a furry Charon*.

Of course it’s frightening to come to terms with your own death–that’s just human nature. But church grims were more than a dark omen or a brutal ritual. They were a reassurance to the living–a promise that our loved ones would be cared for in the afterlife.

And as we near the end of our lives, very few of us ask for more.


*Charon, a character in Greek mythology, ferried the souls of the dead across the river Styx to the underworld.


Page Sources:

Northern Mythology, Comprising the Principal Popular Traditions and Superstitions of Scandinavia, North Germany, and the Netherlands (vol II), compiled by Benjamin Thorpe

Notes on the Folk-lore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders by William Henderson

An Encyclopedia of Fairies by Katharine Briggs

Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Celtic Culture by Kristin Hawkins

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by JK Rowling

Year Walk by Simogo

The Atlantic: The Movement to Bury Pets Alongside People