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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
The Secret of Kells