So, About Celtic Fairies (part 1)

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?

M: …

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.

P1: …

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. >:-)

P1: Dancing?

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. 😉

Not fairy music, but certainly Irish! Also why won’t WordPress center my captions
This has been bothering me

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.)

18 thoughts on “So, About Celtic Fairies (part 1)

  1. I love this! I’ve been researching a lot of faerie folklore and all of your information is spot on. I really dislike how fairies are portrayed in books and movies. I do love the book Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norwell!
    The Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair is the perfect example of a Celtic fairy.
    I have been writing my own fae story and hoping to incorporate a lot of the lore and break some stereotypes.
    Great Post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you!! Oh, thank goodness, I’m glad to hear that my information is good. YES so I’m not the only one who hates how fairies get portrayed sometimes. Of all the interesting things people could do with them and…
      Oh! I haven’t read Jonathan Strange, but I have read the author’s collection of short stories set in the same world! I really loved them. It really gave me the same feel as the fairy tales I grew up with. ❤
      That is AWESOME. I love reading stories about the fey!

      Like

  2. This is amazing!! Please do make this a series, I am utterly, utterly fascinated. (And misinformation on the internet? You’re kidding, right? the internet always tells the truth. :P)

    I have heard about changelings being an excuse for infanticide. That’s not cool.

    Also that favorable answer in exchange for a hopeful answer? Brilliant. I like that priest.

    Evidently I need to read more fairy stories.

    Lovely post, my dear!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! I do feel like there’s still more to say, so I do plan on making a part 2 if everything works out. 😉 (I KNOW. People not checking their sources never happens. I was so shocked. 😮 )

      Yeah, it kind of turns the changeling stories from something cool to read into something just depressing. I’ll admit I have a hard time reading them sometimes.

      Yeah, I like the priest too.

      Fairy stories are pretty amazing, so I definitely recommend them!
      Thank you!

      Like

  3. The story about the priest with the hopeful answer thing is cool.

    This was super informative and very helpful, thank you! I’m working on a story with fae (sort of with Celtic vibes), selkies, and changelings right now and… very much making it my own. But it’s nice to know that I’m not deviating too far from established folklore.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. How did I miss this post? THIS POST IS EVERYTHING. Please do a part 2, I’m fascinated. I’ve always loved Celtic fairies, but I haven’t ever really looked them up. The only things I know about them are gleanings from some fairy-tales, The Hound of Ulster, and that one very depressing day I decided to look up changeling legends and their origins. Never again. Changeling stories are ruined for me forever.

    Also I have to comment on “Don’t say that this is what whatever century Irish peasant believed!” because lol yes.

    Also THANK YOU for saying that fairies are not IMMORAL, they are AMORAL. There is a difference! And fae just being outside the human construct of morality is so much more fascinating, anyway, than fae who are essentially extra-mean humans! And I’m pretty sure that’s how it is, from what little I’ve read anyway. Because fairies do seem to follow certain rules: they stick to their bargains (the literal meaning of them, at least), and I’m thinking maybe their thing about “DO NOT TOUCH OUR STUFF” has something to do with their moral code. Isn’t that just the coolest idea ever, though??? Their own moral code that’s just totally independent of ours?? It’s a little like how pagan morality can seem incomprehensible to those of us living in our now-Christian world; and fairy morality was incomprehensible to those living in the pagan world. It’s just….FASCINATING.

    But I’ve rambled far too long, oh my goodness, I am sorry for this utter monster of a comment. But I love this post! And I want part 2! And I liked that song!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh oh AND. I would highly, highly recommend Peter Pan? It’s sweet and quirky and it most Victorianly breaks the fourth wall, but it’s also surprisingly dark and disturbing and tragic. It’s…I don’t know, but I love it. And I feel like it might be your kind of thing. (Obviously I could be wrong, and that’s okay! But I do THINK you’d like it!)

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks!! I’ll try to get on that part 2. Hound of Ulster…That’s another name for Cu Chulainn, right? I haven’t read much of the Ulster Cycle, but Irish mythology is one of the things I want to look up more of this year. AND YES I found changeling stories so depressing.

      Lol some people manage to spread some really weird misinformation and I just…Where are they GETTING some of that stuff?

      I think amoral fairies are much more interesting too. It’s a little harder to write a character who doesn’t have very human motivations, and I feel like the two pitfalls I’ve seen people who write fairies fall into are either making the fairies so inhuman they aren’t relatable at all, or else just making them feel like extra-mean humans, like you said. Ooh! I’ve also always thought it would be interesting if the whole ‘don’t break bargains’ thing is actually just part of a moral code rather than something that they’re magically obligated to do. Although, I’m not exactly sure what people’s source for ‘fairies can’t break bargains’ is? It doesn’t mean the source doesn’t exist, though, and I love the trope. Would you happen to know?

      I am not sorry for your monster comment! I love your monster comment! I’m so glad you liked the song.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, Hound of Ulster is Cu Chulainn. Pretty much the entirety of my Ulster cycle knowledge is from reading Rosemary Sutcliff’s Hound of Ulster when I was younger. I always wanted to look up more Irish mythology after that but really didn’t…

        (I always wonder how misinformation gets STARTED, you know? Like, I would never make stuff up off the top of my head and call it official mythology; that seems unethical. But I might totally unknowingly repeat stuff like that. But…who starts that in the first place, you know?)

        Yes, indeed. I feel like it must be hard to avoid one of those two extremes though.
        I always thought Tolkien struck a good balance with his Elves, making them feel very Other but also still interesting and real and, like, people you can invest emotionally in. But writers writing Tolkien-esque elves have this tendency to make them like these perfect passionless angelic beings and like…BORING. Which is kind of the opposite problem.
        I DO NOT KNOW THE SOURCE FOR THAT, now that you mention it. Huh. (But yes, me too. Looove that trope.)

        Haha. Since you liked it so much, here, have another one. 😛

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yeah, while I’ve read really interesting articles and things about Irish mythology, I haven’t really done much more digging. I’ve read The Voyage of Bran, I think, but that’s about it.

          (I know! My guess for some of that is that they might be conflating the stuff they read in retellings for the actual myths? I know I’ve done stuff like that before–I’ve definitely run into places where I assume that some bit in Arthurian mythology must be the same as the retelling I read as a kid, and I have to look at what I’m seeing twice to realize that it’s not like that at all. I guess other people might be unethically making stuff up for clicks? Idk.)

          Oh yes, I love Tolkien’s elves. They do strike a nice balance between not feeling human and being relatable, I agree. (Also, on something of a side note, Legolas and Gimli are such an ultimate BrOTP. I love them.)

          Yeah, I don’t really care whether or not that trope was Actually a Thing, because I love it and am fully in favor of it being added to every retelling ever. XD Lawyer fairies for the win.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I don’t think I’ve heard of the Voyage of Bran?!? What’s it about?

            (That makes a lot of sense. Like how people get ideas about history from historical fiction that…aren’t necessarily true.)

            (They are!!!!)

            Okay me too. And technically fairy lore IS a jumble of stories and tropes that became accepted because people told them and told them and no one really knows their origins half the time, so I feel like we’re totally good rolling with a trope we like. You could even say we’re just taking part in a grand and ongoing tradition. Haha.

            Liked by 1 person

          • It’s a poem about a king who sailed to the otherworld, only to find that he stayed for much longer than he thought he did. I read a version here: https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/vob/vob02.htm

            (OH GOODNESS it’s the worst when people do that. Nooo the author either didn’t do their research or else chose not to be historically accurate. It isn’t true!)

            Lol, I like that idea. It’s not me putting in my favorite stupid tropes just because! It’s me partaking in tradition!

            Liked by 1 person

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