The Faerie Lore of Ireland

Heroic & Dark Fantasy and Science Fiction Character created by Kevin L. O'Brien

Lady Aribeth de Tylmarande, © by Bioware

Untitled, © by Dean Holden

The Faerie Lore of Irelandaeries are not unique to Ireland, however, the Irish did not develop a ghost tradition until the coming of the Anglo-Normans in 1171, or a demonology until the imposition of continental style Roman Catholicism circa 1000 C.E. Until then, their supernatural lore centered on Faeries.

The term Faerie is derived from "Fé erie", meaning the enchantment of the Fées, while is derived from Fay, which is itself derived from Fatae, or the Fates. The term originally applied to supernatural women who directed the lives of men and attended births. Now it has come to mean any supernatural creature tied to the earth, except monsters and ghosts. In Ireland, the Faeries are called the Aes Sídhe (singular Aes Sídh). Sídhe happens to be the name for the earthen mounds and hills that dot the Irish landscape. Irish mythology, legendry, and folklore claim the Faeries live under these mounds, so the term "sídhe" has come to mean Faerie in general, but it more properly refers to the palaces, courts, halls, and residences of the Faeries. However they are known by a wide variety of euphemisms, including "the Fair Folk", "the Good Neighbors", "the Little Folk", "the Little Darlings", and "the People of Peace". This is done for two reasons. The first is to avoid attracting their attention and the second is to avoid insulting them.

The modern term "fairy" is not used on this website, because of its link to "fairy tales", which in their modern form have little to do with actual Faeries, and its connotation with homosexuals. Similarly, the term "elf", is not used primarily to avoid confusion with the Quendi of J. R. R. Tolkien. While his elves have characteristics in common with Faeries, they are still living, breathing beings. Also, in legends and folklore, elf was used in Scandinavia the same way Aes Sídh was used in Ireland, to refer to any Faeries, and it was introduced to Britain by the Anglo-Saxons, but in English literature it came to refer to the diminutive fairies of Spenser and Shakespeare, which in conventional Faerie lore would be the equivalent of the little nature spirits.

The Origin of Faeries

There are two types of theories concerning the origin of Faeries: folkloric and mythographic. Folkloric theories assume the Faeries are real and try to explain how they came to be, whereas the mythographic theories assume Faeries are not real and try to explain how and why people invented them.

The folkloric theories can be divided into three groups. The first explains Faeries as fallen angels who did not follow Satan into Hell, but chose to reside on the Earth. The second explains them as the dead who are not good enough to get into Heaven, but are too good for Hell, and instead reside in a limbo world where they recreate their former lives. The third explains Faeries as children of Eve, whom she hide from God because they were dirty. As punishment, God cursed her, saying that the children she tried to hide from Him would remain hidden from her, and subsequently all Mankind.

The mythographic theories can also be divided into three groups. One explains Faeries as an older race of people driven into hiding by invading newcomers. This old race continues to survive in part by stealing tools, food, animals, even woman and children from the invaders, attacking solitary travelers who wander into their territory, or haunting isolated farms where they do work in exchange for food. In time, the invaders come to think of these people as having supernatural powers, and develop traditions about them to protect themselves and try to stay out of their way. This may have occurred in Ireland, when the Mesolithic hunter-gathers were supplanted by Neolithic farmers sometime around 4500 B.C.E. Certainly, the Irish mythological history claims that defeated races retreated under mounds to become the Faeries.

© by Howard David JohnsonAnother group of theories explains Faeries as a form of ancestor worship, especially forebears from a past "Golden Age" of heroic history. In Ireland, legends and folktales tell how great kings and heroes entered Faerieland when they died, to establish new kingdoms under hills and mounds. Also, the Irish generally believed that Faeries were the dead, and that Faerieland was the afterlife. Even after their conversion to Christianity, the Irish continued to believe that most people when they died waited for the Last Judgment inside one or another Faerie mound. Still another group of theories assumes that Faeries are dwindled gods, who through many generations of people retelling their myths, go from being deities to nature spirits, especially after the coming of Christianity. In Ireland, the legends and folktales do claim that the ancient Tuatha Dé Danann and Fir Bholg retreated under the mounds to become the first Faeries, and most mythographers believe they were the gods of the ancient Irish.

Faerie Society

Regardless of where they came from, Faeries have a culture and social organization just as humans do. They can be divided into two orders: the Trooping Faeries and the Solitary Faeries.

The Trooping Faeries are gregarious and live in communal groups, usually under mounds or hills, or in dwellings in Faerieland itself. Their social structure closely imitates that of Humanity, with aristocrats (the so-called Heroic Faeries), rustic folk, and the gentry. All Faeries love making music and dancing, even the Solitaries and the evil ones, and all Troopers enjoy rades, solemn processions on foot or on horseback. However, the Heroics are particularly keen for hunts, battle, and sporting matches. The aristocrats are the most powerful; they are also the most beautiful. They mimic human aristocracy, in that they have kings, knights, ladies, and royal courts, with feasts and balls. The rustics are the weakest, and they most closely resemble human peasants. The gentry are in between, much like the human gentry. They are not as gallant or sophisticated as the Heroics, but are generally more refined than the rustics. They enjoy some of the same leisure activities as the Heroics, particularly sports and games, but they must work like the rustics. They are the Faeries who most often interact with humans, and many are half-human or have human ancestry.

Fairy Song, by Arthur RackhamThe Solitary Faeries are, as their title implies, loners and individualistic, but some do come together on occasion to have meetings or hold fairs. They are generally less kindly disposed towards people than the Troopers, but only the evil ones are truly inimical. Though some resemble the aristocrats and most the gentry or the rustics, they have no formal social structure as the Troopers do. Most are as powerful as the gentry and a few are as strong as the Heroics. In fact, there is little they share in common as a group, except that they can be found almost anywhere and they have no formal dwellings. They can be divided into two smaller orders, the domesticated Solitaries and the wild Solitaries, but the distinction between these is often blurred. A domestic Faerie lives with humans and helps with the work, whereas a wild Faerie lives in nature and protects it from human encroachment. However, some domestic Faeries only cause trouble and some wild Faeries help with herding and harvest. Also, a domestic Faerie can go wild if insulted, spied upon, thanked, or given a gift of clothing, while a wild Faerie can be made into a staunch friend and valuable ally by showing it kindness or doing it a favor. However, there are some wild Faeries who are so dangerous they should not even be befriended.

For the names of various Trooping and Solitary Faeries, please see the Supernatural Beings of Ireland page.

Faeries tend to live completely independent lives. They ride, revel, dance, play sports and games, hold markets, make their own crafts, work in their own mines, and grow their own food. They have their own animals, such as horses, dogs, and cattle, and they make use of various wild animals, such as deer and goats. Their crafts include spinning, weaving, grinding meal, cooking, baking, and Ängsälvor, by Nils Blommerchurning, metalworking, leatherworking, tailoring, and boat-building. They love music and dancing, at which they excel far beyond what any human can hope to accomplish. They hunt and conduct wars, both between themselves and against human kingdoms. They play various ball games, including football and hurling. They are masters of the game of fidhcheall, generally believed to be similar to chess, but also play cards and dice. Their natural food, even among the aristocrats and the gentry, consists of barley meal, deer or goat milk, butter and cheese made from such, and the roots, leaves, and stalks of weeds, all of which are disguised and spiced by glamour. The exception seems to be the small, delicious cakes the gentry and rustics give to their benefactors. Yet they have a curious dependency upon humans, as is witnessed by the things they steal from people, particularly food.

Faerie Habitations

When discussing the question of Faerie habitation, we must distinguish between where Faeries are found and where they live. Faeries can be found anywhere. Aristocratic Trooping Faeries inhabit mounds, caves, and other underground areas; the sea and large lakes; off-shore islands; above the clouds; and even the air itself. The gentry and the rustics can inhabit under ground or under water, but mostly they tend to inhabit the wilderness just beyond human towns and villages, such as woods, fields, hedgerows, glens, mountains, and rocky clefts. Others inhabit human funerary monuments such as dolmen and tumuli, or rings of standing stones, or mushroom rings. Fairyland, © by Howard David JohnsonDomesticated Solitary Faeries can be found in or under houses or out-building, in the fields or orchards, or simply within the confines of human-dominated land. Wild Solitary Faeries can be found in any natural habitat, no matter how small or mean, and even inhabit trees and flowers. In all these places, they build for themselves some form of dwelling, which is as opulent or as simple as they need it to be.

And yet, in any real sense of the word, Faeries only live in Faerieland. Those locations in our world where we encounter them are simply the places into which they incur. Their dwellings are pockets of Faerieland that have protruded into our world, and which act as portals to allow Faeries and humans to cross from one to the other. Even so, the vast majority of Faeries and humans are unable to cross at will, but must wait until the barriers between worlds weaken or break down entirely. This happens not infrequently, and the strength of the barriers fluctuates on daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly cycles. However, periods when the barriers are weak enough to permit crossovers are few and far between, and occur at irregular intervals, with two exceptions: the nadir and zenith of the Irish year. At Samhain (November 1st) and Beltene (May 1st), the barriers virtually collapse, allowing beings from either world to cross into the other. But being as Beltene is the festival of light and rebirth, most denizens of Faerieland are repelled by it and so avoid our world at that time. Not so with Samhain — Hallowe'en — when the Faeries travel openly and freely through our world during the three days of the festival.

All Hallows Eve, © by Howard David JohnsonThough Faerieland is often depicted as a duplicate of Earth, except either more beautiful or more horrific, there is one major difference: time passes at different rates in the two worlds. Though a few legends and folktales tell of visitors to Faerieland spending a year there, only to discover that just an hour passed on Earth, it is usually the other way around. It is not uncommon to hear about someone who has spent an hour dancing inside a Faerie mushroom ring discovering that a year has passed outside; or about a captive held for a week inside a Faerie mound discovering that seven years has passed when he is released; or a hero living with a Faerie maiden on a Faerie island for six months discovering that four hundred years have passed on Earth. And there is no single standard for time conversion; time in Faerieland is as mercurial as the Faeries themselves.

Faerie Powers

Faeries have numerous powers, being supernatural creatures, but not all Faeries have the same powers, or can wield them with the same strength. The Heroic Faeries have nearly complete control over time and space, whereas the smallest of the rustic Faeries are at the mercy of their human captors. Even so, it can be dangerous to anger even the weakest of Faeries, because one power they all share is the ability to bestow continual good fortune on those who please them or do them favors, and continual bad luck on those who upset them.

Another power all Faeries share is glamour, the magic of illusion, whereby they can make people see whatever they wish them to see, or not see whatever they do not wish them to see. The aristocrats can create whole kingdoms with this power, whereas the smallest rustics can at least become invisible. Akin to this is the ability to mislead people by hiding or changing the appearance of familiar landmarks, or disguising treacherous ground to make it appear safe. Shape-shifting is also based on this power, and most Faeries have the ability to transform themselves into any form they desire, or to make themselves appear as tiny or as huge as they wish.

Mischief, by Arthur RackhamMost Faeries also have some control over the weather and the seasons. At the very least, they can cause blight on plants and illness in animals and humans. In fact, Faeries can cause illness, injury, and even death using the "Faerie stroke", a kind of weapon that they can direct at an enemy. Similarly, however, Faeries can also heal injuries and cure the sick when they wish to.

The ability to cause sickness and injury also explains another power, the ability to steal the toradh, or nutritional goodness, from food. This can be done in a number of different ways, such as mystically removing it, leaving only a husk, or actually destroying it, such as burning a barn full of wheat. The weaker Faeries will even steal the food outright, either invisibly or in the guise of vermin.

A common power, though usually restricted to the Trooping Faeries, is levitation and flight. This is also accomplished by a number of different means. One way was to recite a spell or magical phrase, such as "Horse and Hattock!" or "Boram, Boram, Boram!" A few of the Heroic Faeries are able to fly by their own will. However, most Faeries require some sort of apparatus, such as ragwort stalks and magical caps. Humans can sometimes join the Faeries in their flying revels, and sometimes they snatch unwilling humans and carry them along, either to be taken to Faerieland or dumped in some far away country. Faeries are also able to levitate objects as well as themselves or people, anything from dishes to whole buildings.

Perhaps the most basic power is the ability to influence fertility. Though this is reflected in a number of the powers described earlier, their interest in fertility, particularly agriculture and human love, is part of their nature. Many stories describe in general terms how a farmer who honors his Good Neighbors prospers because the Faeries watch over his crops, animals, and family, protecting and nurturing them, whereas a farmer who dishonors them comes to ruin because the Faeries attack his crops, animals, and family, blighting and killing them.

Faerie Morality

Faerie morality is at once familiar and bizarre. Faeries tend to react in an exaggerated fashion to acts of minor significance, bestowing a lavish reward for a small kindness while doling out an equally lavish punishment for a small offense. They also demand adherence to rules and taboos that conflict with human nature and often contradict one another. Even so, for the most part, the virtues esteemed by Faeries are also esteemed by humans, and the faults condemned by Faeries are also condemned by humans. In fact, it can be argued that Faerie morality reflects that of an Unseelie Court, © Brian Froudinsular human pastoral community, wherein the virtues encourage harmonious neighborly relations, while the faults discourage them.

Like humans, there are good and evil Faeries, called the Seelie Court and Unseelie Court, respectively. The members of the Seelie Court can be dangerous if offended, but the primary difference between these two groups is that the Unseelie Court is never under any circumstance favorable to humans. Its chief pleasure is to harm or distress people, and while its members can have a sense of gratitude, it can be just as dangerous to befriend them as offend them. They are wholly hostile to mankind, and the best way to deal with them is to avoid them altogether. In Irish legends and folktales, the Unseelie Court is composed chiefly of the Sluagh Sídhe, the evil, unsanctified dead.

The members of the Seelie Court, on the hand, are kindly disposed, or at least neutral, towards humans who obey their laws. They are not without kindly impulses, and are capable of gratitude: they readily reward any kindness done to them, no matter how small, and show their approval of any conduct they deem admirable. Typical rewards include gifts of food, inexhaustible supplies of grain or flour, perpetual good health and fortune, or even being saved from danger or death. For the most part, people expect good Faeries to be helpful and fair, to return what they borrow, to patronize true love, to enjoy music and dancing, and to take a keen interest in fertility, neatness, order, and beauty. Even the members of the Unseelie Court do not lie, they just equivocate.

Among themselves, Faeries adhere to an extremely strict code of conduct that forbids dishonesty and stealing. Only infidelity is generally tolerated, being as Faeries are notorious for being amorous. With regards to humans, however, they seem to believe they are entitled to take whatever they need. Katharine Briggs has stated that their motto seems to be, "All that's yours is mine and all that's mine is my own." In addition to toradh, Faeries have no scruples about stealing grain, milk, or even cattle. Nor do they stop at animals: Faeries will gladly kidnap babies, children, beautiful maidens, and nursing mothers, as well as poets, musicians, and handsome young men. Yet Faeries become furious if humans steal from them, and while they delight in playing tricks on people, when the joke is on them they usually do not take it in good humor. As well, even among the good Faeries, their kindness is often capricious, and their goodwill can be embarrassing, even distressing; it is not unusual for Faeries to enrich a friend by stealing from his neighbors. And there is very little mercy mingled with their justice.

Virtues Esteemed by Faeries

Midsummer Eve, by Edward Robert HughesThe best way to win the favor of the Faeries is to practice what they honor and avoid what they hate. Faeries expect people to be generous and fair in their dealings, and to keep their promises. Truthfulness in word and deed, and gentle, courteous manners are all esteemed, as is readiness to perform an act of kindness, such as feeding a stranger, lending a measure of oatmeal, or suckling an infant. They prefer persons to give straightforward answers to straightforward questions, and they expect appreciation for the gifts they bestow. An hospitable nature is especially prized, particularly towards them: when they come to a house, they expect it to be made welcome for them by being neat and orderly, with a clear fire in a freshly swept hearth, and a bowl of fresh water set out beside an offering of milk, bread, and cheese. Yet they also want humans to be close and private, fond of solitude and contemplation, and able to keep secrets. Open, loving, free people are dear to them, and they cherish merriment, cheerfulness, celebration, and good fellowship.

Faults Condemned by Faeries

Faeries dislike boasters, braggarts, and babblers. Meanness, rudeness, and selfishness are unpopular with them, as is slovenliness, sluttishness, ill-temper, and bad manners. Gloominess is shunned, and to thank them for a gift is a breach of etiquette. However, the worst crime of all is to infringe on their privacy. They hate anyone who betrays their secrets, and they also hate inquisitive people who spy on them and clumsy oafs who break into their revels without permission. Trespassers onto their land or mounds are severely punished, even if the encroachment was accidental, and it is best to avoid using their roads when they are on the move. Faerie gifts are given in secret, and anyone who talks about them will lose them.

Protection Against Faeries

If a human does find himself the target of Faerie malice, there are ways he can protect himself. Faeries are essentially pagans and tend to be superstitious; most can be held at bay by religious objects or rituals. Sacred symbols such as the cross are often effective, not just because of its religious significance, but also because it represents the purifying light of the sun. Faeries are not afraid of or harmed by the sun, but its symbology as a giver of life is inimical to their status as Fairies, Goblins, and Dwarfs, © by Howard David Johnsonbeings of the dead. Similarly, Christ's conquest of death on the cross can be seen as a repudiation of the Faerie lifestyle. Even making the sign of the cross can be effective, and after the triumph of Christianity, Christian symbols were accepted as shields against the evil Faeries of the Unseelie Court. These include saying prayers or singing hymns, sprinkling or carrying Holy Water, and even carrying churchyard mold. Bread and salt are also effective, being as they have been regarded as sacred ever since primitive times, and as with the sun are symbols of life.

Other protective means include ringing bells, whistling, and snapping clappers. Travelers who believe they are being mislead can turn their coats inside out, in an attempt to change their identity, and people being chased by Faeries can leap to safety across fresh running water. Self-bored stones, which have holes in them created by running water, not only allow a person to see through glamour (by looking through the hole), but also protect animals and people from being taken. A number of different plants and herbs are also useful as counter-charms. The shamrock, or four-leafed clover, is the most powerful, because it breaks Faerie glamour. St. John's wort and red verbena protect against magic in general, while daisies can prevent children from being kidnapped. The wood or red berries from rowan or ash trees do much the same for adults.

Yet by far the most potent protective measure is iron, especially cold-wrought iron implements, which are created by beating raw iron instead of melting and casting it. Steel, the primary alloy of iron, is also effective. There is no certain answer why Faeries should fear it. One suggestion is that Faeries consider iron-working to be uncanny, a form of magic only humans can do. While possible, it would seem unlikely, because Faeries are master smiths, and they would be familiar with metalworking. Another possibility is based on the fact that iron is considered to be representative of life. As such, like bread or the cross, it also would symbolize a concept inimical to the Faeries. Whatever the reason, anything made of iron or steel, including horseshoes, knives, and scissors, can be used to keep Faeries at bay.

Faerie Dealings with Humans

Comus, by Arthur RackhamDespite their love for privacy, Faeries have long had dealings with humans. This is usually explained as a dependence of Faeries on humanity, such that even though they live completely independent lives, Faeries need humans to survive. Faeries will of course steal whatever they need or want, but by far most of their thefts seem to be of food, since most other things they make are of fine quality. Based on an earlier description, however, their food is largely inadequate even for their own needs, unless supplemented by human food or the toradh they extract from it. Nonetheless, Faeries don't always steal; sometimes they borrow instead. Mostly they borrow grain or meal, but they can borrow implements, the use of mills and homes, human skill to mend a tool, or the skill of a midwife to deliver a Faerie baby. They will even beg for something as simple as a human woman giving a Faerie baby a suck from her breast. In exchange for such kindnesses, Faeries are apt to give generous rewards, such as perpetual good health and fortune, an endless supply of grain or meal, great skill in a craft or music and dancing, the ability to heal, and even treasure. Sometimes, however, Faeries will also make loans to people, such as utensils, tools, animals, or food. They expect payment for this service, but in this case they will only accept the fair equivalent of what they lent, and they are offended if more is offered or they are explicitly thanked.

Humans in Faerieland

Aside from theft and borrowing, there are two other major ways that humans and Faeries interact. The most common is when humans visit Faerieland. It is possible for people to enter and leave Faerieland more or less unscathed, however, this is rather rare. Usually, once someone enters Faerieland, he or she becomes trapped forever. As with other dealings, humans enter Faerieland in one of two ways: having been kidnapped by Faeries, or agreeing to render them a favor. Both demonstrate just how dependent Faeries are on humans.

People borrowed for their skills generally fall into two categories. One is the use of strong men to give power to the Faeries in their wars or ball games. Despite their own great power, Faeries are unable to prevail against one another unless a mortal man takes a hand. In some traditions, Faeries cannot be killed unless a man is present on the battle field. Why this is so is a mystery, but it is White and Golden, by Arthur Rackhampossible that the Faerie combatants nullify each other's powers, allowing him to effect the outcome. The other category is the use of women as midwives, nurse maids, or nannies. The first two are understandable. Despite their power, Faeries are actually delicate creatures and may have problems giving birth. Also, human midwives may be called in to attend the birth of half-human Faerie babies from human captives in Faerieland. And if Faerie food is inadequate without human food or an infusion of toradh, Faerie breast milk is probably inadequate as well, hence the need for a human wet nurse. But nannies are something of an anomaly. Stories such as "The Faerie Widower" seem to combine aspects of both the captive in Faerieland stories and the midwife to the Faeries stories, with a twist: Faerie children seem to require maternal love as much as human children do. In most of these stories, a beautiful young girl agrees to raise a Faerie man's child or children for a specific length of time. Though he treats her as if she were his wife, there is no indication that he molests her, and at the end of her time she is allowed to return to her family. Indeed, often she is sent away against her will. The actions of the Faeries in these stories is inexplicable, but this serves to underscore their mercurial and unpredictable nature.

One interesting aspect of the midwife / nurse maid stories is that at some point the woman acquires the ability to penetrate Faerie glamour and see their world as it really is. This can result from eating a greasy meal and then touching one eye with greasy fingers. Most of the time, however, it occurs when the woman is asked to rub the eyes of the child with a Faerie ointment and then inadvertently touches one of her own eyes as well. Though the exact formulation is unknown, traditionally the ointment is supposed to be made from shamrocks. The treatment seems to be permanent, but the woman invariably betrays her secret, usually by seeing an invisible Faerie and greeting him, at which point he puts out the eye she sees him with. It is also curious that these women usually do not receive a rich reward, though they can be paid their usual fee. It is almost tempting to believe that their newly acquired Faerie sight is their reward, which they lose when they infringe on Faerie privacy.

One other point is that the fate of these half-human children is never revealed in the legends or folktales. However, being raised in the Faerie realm, eating Faerie food, it can probably be taken for granted that they grow up to become fully Faerie.

The Guest of Honor, by Arthur RackhamHowever, as in most things, if the Faeries need humans for some reason, they just kidnap them. Though people are occasionally taken for what amounts to slave labor, there are generally two reasons why Faeries kidnap humans: for their skills or for breeding stock. It is more common for Faeries to kidnap a young woman to be a wet nurse or a nanny than to hire one, though usually the women are still let go after their use is fulfilled. It is rare to kidnap a man to participate in a war or ball game, possibly because his cooperation is crucial, but it does happen and again he is usually let go afterwards. However, a man with a special talent or who is especially skilled at a craft, music, or singing, or a handsome youth who has caught the eye of a Faerie lady, is generally taken forever. In those cases, a stock is usually left in his place. This is a piece of wood about the same size and general shape of the victim, crudely carved to resemble a human, then ensorcelled by glamour to make it look like the victim. It is made to look as if it is sick or unconscious, and after a short while it appears to die, at which point the humans duly bury it. In that way, the victim is not missed and no attempt to rescue him is made. The same is true of women taken to be nurse maids or nannies.

By far, though, women, children, and babies are the most common victims of Faerie kidnapping, and they are invariably used as breeding stock. Apparently, Faeries need to invigorate themselves with human blood — i.e., genetic material; Faeries are not vampires — from time to time to keep from losing their powers. Men taken by fairy women are used as lovers, though their use for stud cannot be ruled out. However, beautiful young women taken by fairy men are used in only one way, as brood mares. Legends and folktales refer to them as brides, but this may be a euphemism for concubine. There is no evidence in the stories that these women were treated the same as real fairy wives. In fact, the closest analogy would probably be that of Homeric Greece, in which the Achaean heroes captured women on their raids and took them back to their city-states to first service them in their beds and then serve them as slaves on their estates. It is therefore likely that, after bearing one or more children, the human women were put to work under the supervision of the fairy wives.

Fisherman and the Siren, by Lord Frederick LeightonThat humans are kidnapped for recreational sex should not come as a surprise. Faeries are, of course, the patrons of fertility, and sex is intimately coupled to fertility. As such, Faerie amorousness is legendary, and it isn't limited to the Trooping Faeries. Wild Faerie men often try to seduce or lure women into their dwellings, and they will extort human men into surrendering their wives or daughters to them, or blackmail human women into living with them. Others will rape women who spy on them, though most of the time they can mesmerize the women to keep them from resisting. Many wild Faerie women use sex as a form of punishment for infringing on their privacy, and their love-making is so intense few men can survive it, and those who do pine away and die. A few will even punish human women in this same way. Others demand the man marry them or he will be killed, while others simply take him if they are enamored with him. Some can be wooed into becoming mistresses, but only if the man keeps their secrets and agrees to honor certain difficult conditions.

Taking captives may also have a more sinister purpose. Every seven years, the Faeries must pay a teind, or tithe, to the Devil, one of their own given to him as tribute. Many legends and folktales hint that human captives are used to pay the teind so that Faeries will be spared.

Nonetheless, a captive can be rescued as long as he or she does not consume any Faerie food or drink, because otherwise he or she will be trapped forever, having partaken of the Faerie nature. Even then the rescue will have to be made before seven years has passed, otherwise another attempt can not be made again until seven years later. There are many methods that can be used to free a captive; indeed, the method may be unique to each case. One that seems to work often Hylas and the Nymphs, by John William Waterhouseis to throw milk or Holy water over the victim as he or she rides by in a rade. Another common method is lay hold of the victim and hang on to him or her as tightly as possible, ignoring all the frightful sights and sound the Faeries create, or the horrific forms the victim is forced to take on at the Faeries' command. Still another method is to threaten to dig down into a Faerie mound or an underground Faerie residence and expose it to the light of day. Even so, courage is required when using these methods, because they put the rescuers in direct confrontation with the Faeries. As such, the primary reason most rescue attempts fail is cowardice: the rescuers lose their nerve at the last minute and fail to act. Another important reason is that sometimes the rescue attempt comes too late, after the victim has eaten Faerie food. Jealousy is another strong reason for failure. A man who loses his young wife shortly after child birth may not discover that she didn't die but was taken by the Faeries until after he has remarried. His new wife may then thwart his attempt to rescue his old one by sabotaging his attempt.

But if attempts to rescue a captive sometimes fail, so too can the attempts by the Faeries to kidnap their selected victim. As with rescues, the methods used may be unique to each case, but in the absence of a protective charm or ritual, the most common method is to simply hold on to the victim despite all attempts by the Faeries to force his or her release. One unusual method takes advantage of a Faerie trait, that they must agree to exchange anything a human has for anything they have, no matter how unfavorable the trade is. One story tells of a man who watched a group of Faeries flying overhead, carrying something with them. Curious to know what it was, he threw his hat into the air, crying, "Mine be yours and yours be mine!" The Faeries took his hat and flew off, and a noble lady was left lying at his feet.


Undine, by Arthut RackhamMany more children and babies are taken than even women, because it is easier to assimilate them into Faerie society. Sometimes a stock is left in their place, but usually it is a changeling. A changeling is a Faerie left in place of the child or baby, ensorcelled by glamour to look like the kidnapped youngster. Sometimes it is a baby Faerie that does not thrive and eventually dies, but usually it is an old worn-out Faerie too weak to engage in Faerie society anymore. The best way to guard against the Faeries kidnapping a child or baby is to use a protective charm, such as an open pair of scissors hung above the cradle or a daisy-chain necklace. Keeping a vigilant watch is also effective, though it can be hard to watch children all the time. If the Faeries do manage to take a child or baby, it can be difficult to discover this fact, but a drastic change in behavior is often the key. A healthy baby or child who is found dead the next morning may be a stock; one that suddenly sickens may by a Faerie baby or child; or one that becomes cantankerous and difficult to control may be an old Faerie. There is little that can be done if a stock is left behind, short of threatening to attack the Faeries. If a Faerie baby or child is left, mistreating or threatening to mistreat it can sometimes cause the Faeries to remove it and bring back the human baby or child. Mistreating an old Faerie can work as well, but generally it is better to get it to reveal its true age or nature, at which point it will flee and the human child or baby will be returned. A good way to get it to reveal its nature is to remember how much Faeries love music and dancing, while a good way to get it to reveal its age is to brew beer or boil water in eggshells. As with any captive in Faerieland, time is of the essence, but it is even more critical since babies and children are more likely to eat the food offered them.

Faerie Patrons

The second major way humans and Faeries interact with each other is when Faeries become involved in human affairs on a personal level. This is done in one of the two ways. The first is when a Faerie patronizes a promising human, while the second is when a human takes a Faerie wife. Though the "Fairy Godmother" is a relatively modern motif, it can trace its roots all the way back to the Fatae, who often meddled in the affairs of humans, usually with tragic results. Though Faerie patronage generally produces happier results, it is fundamentally different from the gifts Faeries gave out of gratitude. The Faerie patrons almost seem to want their protégés to advance to the highest levels of human society.

Lamia, by John William WaterhouseFaerie patronage usually takes one of two forms: patronage of chivalry and patronage of peasants. Chivalric patronage generally involves a Faerie lord patronizing a human lord or a Faerie noble woman patronizing a knight. The Faerie lords seem to act as they do simply out of friendship. This is unusual to say the least, but in the legends and folktales, the Faerie lord often sounds like he is one of the half-human children born of a human women taken by the Faeries. If true, this might explain why they are eager to help a human lord for no reward. The Faerie noble woman often finds an abandoned child or steals one away, and raises him to be brave, generous, and kind. When he comes of age she then sends him back into the human world to be trained as a knight, and if he proves himself worthy she advises and protects him all his life. Sometimes this Faerie mother becomes the knight's Faerie mistress as well. Though in later literary works these Faerie noble women were euhemerized into powerful human sorceresses, the legends and folktales seemed to show that they have a strong maternal instinct.

This may also explain why some Faeries, usually from among the gentry, patronized peasants. Most of the time, this took the form of female Faeries patronizing young girls, since they were on the lowest rung of the social ladder, but could climb the highest by marrying a prince or king. The legends and folktales generally took two forms. One involved a girl encountering a Faerie and being tested by it. If she was kind, polite, and generous, she would be rewarded with rich gifts, but if she was rude, insulting, and selfish, she would be cursed. The other form involved a girl required to perform a task for which she had no talent. The female Faerie would grant her the skill she needed to complete the task, but her skill would be so great she would become famous and attract the attention of the local ruler, who would ask her to marry him. An offshoot of this kind of story would be the girl who is helped in her chores by the little rustic Faeries, but not granted any talent directly. However, some stories tell of a young man whom some Faerie, usually male, helps to advance socially by passing him off as a rich young noble and conniving to marry him to the daughter of the local ruler.

Faerie Brides

Perhaps the most unusual interaction between humans and Faeries is the Faerie bride phenomenon. This is when a human man takes a Faerie woman to be his wife. Though a paternalistic concept — virtually the only time a human woman takes a Faerie husband is when he kidnaps her — the marriages seldom end happily: at some point, the Faerie wife leaves and returns to her people, abandoning not only her husband, but any children as well. Even so, the children seldom suffer, unless at the hands of their fathers, because many inherit some of their mothers' power, and often the mothers grant them gifts as well.

Selkie, © by Forest RogersSome Faerie brides are taken by force, while others are wooed. The classic example of a bride taken by force is the seal maiden. She lives in a secret land under the sea, but occasionally she comes to the surface to dance in the moonlight with her sisters. However, to cross the water, she must wear a seal skin, and if she loses it she cannot return. A man who can steal and hide it away can force her to become his wife. They may live happily for many years, and she may give him children, but if she ever finds the skin, she will abandon her family and return home without hesitation. Similar legends and folktales are told about mermaids, swan maidens, river and forest women, and even female Trooping Faeries, the common denominator being that the man somehow discovers her vulnerability and exploits it.

Other Faerie brides have to be wooed like a human woman. The classic example is the Lake Maiden. She also lives in an underwater kingdom, but she can come and go through the water as she pleases. Often a sheep- or cowherder will spy her sunning herself on the shore and offer to share his meal with her. She leads him on for days, finding fault with whatever he offers, until at last he offers something she cannot resist, at which point she agrees to marry him. He usually has to choose her from a group of nearly identical women, and she always places conditions on his behavior towards her, but she also brings a rich dowry of cattle, sheep, goats, and horses. Invariably, however, the man breaks the conditions and she leaves him, though not before blessing her children with gifts of magical skill. Wood women and mermaids are generally easier to win and demand fewer conditions, because they are not as sophisticated, but they usually offer no dowry and are more temperamental. They are easier to offend and do not fit in well with human society, so they tend to leave sooner than the Lake Maidens do. However, they still bless their children with special skills before they leave.


It would be impossible to present a complete compendium of Faerie lore in so short a space, so we tried to just hit the highlights. Also, we should warn you that Faerie lore is often contradictory, and that for every legend or folktale that says one thing, there is another that will say something completely different. The information presented here is accepted by consensus of the majority of mythographers, but it is by no means universal, or even applies in the majority of cases. As with everything else about Faeries, their lore is as mercurial as they are.

Back to the Irish Mythology.