So! IT HAS COME TO MY ATTENTION THAT THERE IS MISINFORMATION ON THE INTERNET. Like, seriously. Some of those little infographics about fairies that I’ve seen on Pinterest get over half their information wrong. It’s just…if you’re going to make a worldbuilding post, make a worldbuilding post! Don’t say that this is what whatever century Irish peasants believed! For heaven’s sake. So I am here, set to clear up misinformation about fairies and possibly accidentally spread it anyway! But let’s hope for the best.
Disclaimer: This post deals with Celtic fairies, and, more specifically, Irish fairies; much of this information applies to British folklore too, I think, but Irish fairies are what I studied obsessively during my teen years. Also, it’s certainly possible that I may be a massive hypocrite and get over half my information wrong, but if I do, please correct me. I try to fact-check as carefully as I can, but I’m only human (or am I ooh)
So! Let’s have a little Q & A! We’ll call this imaginary questioner ‘Person 1’, P1 for short. ‘M’ is for ‘Mothling’.
P1: Oh! Fairies! Those cute little winged things in gardens, right? Tinkerbell!!!
M: …No. That’s a Victorian trope. I’m honestly not sure if there are any fairies of the sort I speak of that have wings, and not all fairies are little. Some are. Definitely not all. Some have very…changeable size; in their true form they’re probably smallish, but try getting them to tell you that. Let’s not generalize here!
And we do not talk about Tinkerbell. She has her merits, but she’s not the topic of this conversation.
You know, I’ve somehow lived my life without reading Peter Pan? I’ve read Alice in Wonderland and Pinocchio. Pinocchio was a bizarre book, frankly speaking, although I still liked it. But I’m not letting this turn into a review of Pinocchio.
P1: Alright, so by fairies you mean those wicked and dark creatures in YA, treating mortals as their playthings and without a care in the world for any creature but themselves. They’re so scary and immoral, aren’t they?
Sort of? I guess? Not really? I’m talking about folklore fairies. They’re…kind of like that? (Not in the same way, though.)
OKAY, FINE, I’VE HAD ENOUGH. THE WORD IS AMORAL. NOT IMMORAL. I’ve just always interpreted the fey morality structure as being outside of a human construct, and I mean, I guess you can just make them like especially wicked humans if you want to, with the same motivations and the same impulses?? But I mean, why would you want to. (This has been a callout post to The Cruel Prince. Sorry not sorry. It’s just not how I like my fairies.)
Also, fairies do good things as well. They do. Sometimes they help humans. Sometimes they don’t. They aren’t all bad all the time, and it’s a little ridiculous to write them that way.
So no, we’re not really talking about those, either. As a side note, I’d prefer it if YA would stop talking about how their darker takes on fairies are closer to how original fairies were portrayed. No you’re not closer. You are certainly not.
P1: [grabs my arms (wings?)] TELL ME ABOUT CHANGELINGS.
M: Okay! Ease up there! That’s when a fairy steals a human child from the cradle and leaves a fairy child in its place, which is called a changeling. The fairy child is usually ill-tempered, cries a lot, and remains scrawny despite guzzling much more milk than a normal child. The fairy child is not always an actual child! There is one fairy tale where the changeling admitted to being thousands of years old. Why you’d be thousands of years old and masquerade as a baby, which is one of the most boring creatures in existence, God only knows. Some of them really are fairy children, though! Like a lot of things in folklore, it seems to vary.
Oh. And also, the fairy child usually met a horrific death at the hands of their human parents. And the ‘fairy child’ was probably a sick baby, a disabled child, or simply an abuse victim with unloving parents (look, you can’t tell me awful parents didn’t take advantage of that superstition). Man, I’ve just made myself depressed. I remember searching and searching for a story about a changeling with a happy ending for the fairy, and I found maybe a couple? A couple in a whole sea of stories about murdered babies. People really believed this stuff. They really murdered their children because of a superstition.
As for why the fairies were supposed to do this? I honestly don’t know if there was much of an explanation. I remember reading something about ‘human babies are prettier and they like that better’, but first of all, let’s be real. That makes literally no sense. Can we all just agree that newborn babies are ugly? And also, I’m sure humans feel that their children are worth exchanging the literal world for, but…that seems like quite a bit of inconvenience to go through for one baby. Yeah! I just don’t get it! If you do know of an in-folklore explanation, please do tell me, because I have been wondering about this for quite a while. It seems to be one of those things that just happens, with no reasonable explanation.
P1: So, is anyone else at risk of getting kidnapped?
M: Oh, yeah. Women get kidnapped as brides or nursemaids all the time. I’m also pretty sure that Lady Wilde spoke of human men getting kidnapped and forced into marriage, too, but I can’t find the link right now. Darn it.
Also, from what I can tell, children usually get replaced with an actual fairy; adults usually get replaced with a stick or other small object that has been enchanted to look like them, or else they’ll just disappear suddenly. That’s what I remember, anyway. Allow me to go off and read through all those changeling stories before I commit to this, though. I know I have never read a story where a fairy lives in the place of an adult human, but that certainly doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Honestly, that sounds like it’d make a cool YA book.
Oh, and the illusion ‘dies’ shortly after it’s left there. Changelings get killed or forcibly removed, or else they’ll just stay with the family.
I certainly have read tales of male and female artisans getting captured. There was one cute one about how the fairies kidnapped a woman who was an especially good baker (unsure how old it is though, sorry), and I’ve read another about the fairies kidnapping a blacksmith. Also, apparently, some of the kidnapped people end up as enchanted slaves. How decent of fairies. I am disgusted. (This has also been a fairy callout post and I’m not sure if I’m going to make it to the end of this oh no)
Anyway, kidnapping seems to be kind of their thing.
Basically, if this blog ever goes defunct for no apparent reason, you know what got me!
College. College got me.
Oh! And there are also stories about how the fairies teach the kidnapped girls magic before they send them home. Which is nice, I guess! Not sure if it really makes up for the kidnapping, though. But thanks for trying!
There are also stories about human men kidnapping fairy brides and forcing them into marriage, as you do. (For instance, selkie brides.) Those stories tend to end horribly. As they should! Don’t be a terrible person.
Oh, and by the way, my source for a lot of this section is this. If you’re interested.
P1: There aren’t any stories about human sacrifice, are there?
M: Yes! There are indeed one or two. The most famous one is Tam Lin, of course, where the fairy queen has to pay a teind to hell once every seven years. Lady Wilde also briefly mentions a tradition about human sacrifice. I’m not sure who else talks about it, but do tell me if you know of anything.
TELL ME HOW I MAY BE SAFE FROM THEM.
M: Salt! Lots of salt. Salt is good for more than just flavoring. In fact, it’s excellent.
People talk about iron as protection, but one person in a forum somewhere asked where, exactly, people were getting that, and that made me realize that…they’re right? I don’t remember a lot of 19th century collectors of folktales talking about that? Definitely one 17th century guy did. Something something iron is bad because…something something hellfire?! I don’t get it either. I’m sure it makes sense if you’re from the 17th century. (And if you can actually understand the words; I never claimed to be educated) Anyway, if you know of anyone else who speaks about cold iron in relation to fairies, again, do tell me!
Church bells are also excellent, and bread is one we nowadays wouldn’t think of, but Wikipedia says it works! I feel like I might have also read about fire being a source of protection? Idk, man. I’ll try and find it for you. I’m sure there’s other stuff you can do. But, as always, the best protection you can have is being the main character of a fairy tale. Particularly if you’re a bright, clever maiden with a good sense of humor. Those seem to do the best in these types of tales. More seriously, civility and cleverness are the best protection you can have in any situation, and that holds true with fairies, too.
Oh, hey, look at that! I was right about the fire. From Lady Wilde:
Fire is a great preventative against fairy magic, for fire is the most sacred of all created things, and man alone has power over it. No animal has ever yet attained the knowledge of how to draw out the spirit of fire from the stone or the wood, where it has found a dwelling-place. If a ring of fire is made round cattle or a child’s cradle, or if fire is placed under the churn, the fairies have no power to harm. And the spirit of the fire is certain to destroy all fairy magic, if it exist.
I love it when I’m right. Also, quite a few of the changeling stories involve burning the changeling, so maybe I don’t love it when I’m right.
P1: Okay, so where do fairies live?
M: Most of them live in caves and in raths! OH ALSO. I almost forgot to tell you. Do not do not do not mess with fairy ground. Do not build something on it. Do not cut shrubbery on it. Do not even do something seemingly small like plucking a few blades of grass. YOU WILL DIE AND YOUR FARMS WILL BE CURSED. Just don’t do it. I don’t care what you want to do, it’s not worth it. Build somewhere else.
Also, why are you thinking about building on ancient sites anyway? My history-loving heart is angry. Leave the raths alone.
Although, where fairies live depends on the type of fairy, of course! It’s variable. Some live underwater. Some even live in your house!
They’re there. You just can’t see them. >:-)
M: WHY YES INDEED.
Dancing and music is very important. In fact, fairy rings are left there when the fairies dance! And sometimes humans try and join in the dance, which can end badly for the human. Sometimes you’ll be alright. Sometimes you dance to your death. 😉
P1: Can they go to heaven?
M: That would depend on who you ask! Usually, the story goes that a group of fairies come up to a traveling priest and ask him if it is possible for them to achieve salvation. The priest always answers no. In some stories, that’s the end of it, and the fairies let out a great cry and sometimes burn down their home.
But there’s also another version, although I’m not sure where I found it. A priest says that the chances of a fairy getting into heaven is as likely as his staff going into bloom. As soon as he leaves, his staff immediately sprouts flowers, and he has to go back and apologize. I don’t remember where I read that, though, so take it with a grain of salt I guess >_<
Okay! I finally found it. It was Swedish, but I’ll leave it here because it’s a cool story.
But my favorite answer from a priest is this: “I will give you a favorable answer, if you can make me a hopeful one. Do you adore and love the Son of God?”
They have no answer.
You can find the stories mentioned here, by the way.
Uh…There’s definitely more to say, but I have realized that this is getting really, really long. I might split this up into two parts? Also, most of my information is from Lady Wilde’s Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland, and if it’s not from there than it’s probably either from Wikipedia or else I found it once upon a researching session. If you have any more questions, ask them in the comments!
Also, I’m sorry if there are any weird typos. It’s a long article and WordPress kept having bugs. I hope I caught everything. >_<
So, in conclusion, fairies are our amazing problematic faves, and I hope you learned something new! I love fairies. A lot. (So please don’t kill me for any of the rude things I said about you, any fairies who might be reading this blog. I don’t mean it, much.)