There is an ancient and universal belief inherent in all the native religions of the existence of an invisible realm, a land of youth, happiness and beauty, inhabited by Otherworldly beings. Most of us have from our childhood days heard mention of the Faery Folk, or the ‘Good People’, as they are known in Ireland and Scotland. Images of small, dainty beings with silk wings flitting through the grass fill the pages of children’s story books. Yet these romantic images of diminutive creatures, heavily influenced by the Victorian era, are far removed from the original concept of the Sidhe within native Celtic religion as powerful spirit manifestations of the elemental forces of nature. In their original status they form an integral part of the inner religious life of the Gael, both past and present.
Up until this century, the existence of Faeries and the world of Faery land was as much an accepted reality as the normal material world. To see the Gentle Folk, to hear their music carried on the breeze – these were common occurrences amongst the country folk of rural Ireland and Scotland. It is from this living tradition and the testimonies of countless men and women, that our main source of information regarding the Sidhe is derived. Many believe that this ability to see or sense the Sidhe is completely natural; it is only our artificial surroundings that cloud our vision. People living close to nature, like the Gaels ‘at the edge of the world’, still retain this natural perception, even though it may be well hidden, submerged below the surface of the outer trappings of modern life. This way of life that our ancestors lived, in harmony with the cycles of nature, the ebbing and flowing of the tides, is rapidly being lost; it is being swept away in the face of a deluge of materialism, an invasion of mass media and alien cultures. What of the spirit of the Gael? Our people still know of the hidden people, the Good People, but do not wish to speak of this to strangers, outlanders who either question them out of idle curiosity, or ridicule their ‘simple’ beliefs, their peasant superstitions and wild fancies that have no place in a modern, mechanised world where scientific knowledge is the only knowledge.
The survival of faery lore within the ‘Celtic Fringe’ of Western Europe is not due entirely to the remoteness and isolation of these places, important though that has been in resisting the influences of mass media and urban growth. Infact, it has as much to do with the nature of the land itself. There is a strangeness about the Celtic homelands that is mystical, secretive and awesome. Here in these remote lands where the mist hugs the mountains, the sea winds moan like bansidhes and waves crash in fury onto wild rocky shores, here the veil between the two worlds is thin indeed, here the elements are but the external events, the outer symbols of a deeper, hidden mystery.
The nature of the Sidhe of each land is subtly different, for each place has its own ‘genius locii’, its guardian earth spirit. The harsh Cuillin peaks of Skye are home to fierce warrior women of the Sidhe, while the gentle rolling green meadows of Southern Ireland are the dwelling places of noble princes and faery queens, generous and more well disposed towards us.
Nowadays there is a widespread but inaccurate use of the word ‘faery’ to describe all manner of occult beings. Yet to the Gaels the Sidhe are a distinct race of beings who were not and never have been human, but who have had a long history of contact with humankind. Humans and faeries can intermarry, beget children by each other and can even live in each other’s worlds. If we accept the testimonies of Irish seers, there appears to exist hierarchies, orders and social castes among the Sidhe. They are often referred to as ‘The Gentry’. The belief in a faery nobility who direct the activities of the other lower castes would seem to tie in with the theory that the Sidhe are the descendants of the old Celtic aristocracy, the children of Dana. It was Manannan who found for his people the hollow hills throughout Ireland, and he also gave to them the power of invisibility.
When the new religion of Christianity first came to these lands, it did not deny the existence of the Sidhe. So deeply were they embedded in the Irish folk soul that they had to be absorbed into the whole scheme of the Christian cosmology. The faeries, it was explained, were really ‘fallen angels’. They were not evil in themselves, but had somehow ‘lost their way’ and were to be pitied, for they would never find the gates to Heaven.
According to the visions of Irish and Scottish seers, there are two distinct orders of Sidhe beings. These are known as the Shining Ones and the Opalescent Ones. Both are of marvellous beauty and majestic appearance, but the Opalescent Ones are particularly radiant with light streaming forth from their auras in all directions. However, they are rarely seen, even by gifted seers, for they ordinarily dwell in the higher realms far removed from the denser, earthbound planes.
Most sightings of the Sidhe are of the Shining Ones, who have the most contact with humans. They are not themselves immortal, but they do dwell for long time spans relative to ours in the Otherworld, the Many Coloured Land as A.E. would call it. This land is often referred to as ‘The Middle Kingdom’ – it is of the Earth, but hidden from our eyes. These beings live in faery hills, mounds, forts, or sometimes under the sea in the Land beneath the Waves. They are therefore ‘earthbound’ in a similar way to Humankind, but ever evolving towards the higher realms.
The Shining Ones normally appear to be of our own stature, or slightly taller. They are luminous, have light floating bodies which seem to merge in one large collective. They all move in unison and can be heard singing or playing the piob sith, the faery pipe music. Many names have been given to the Shining Ones. In Ireland they are known as ‘Daoine Maithe’, (the Good People). This term is used in an attempt to avoid giving offence to them, as the Sidhe are no more ‘good’ or ‘evil’ than Humankind, in fact such qualities are nonsensical to them. This title also harks back to the children of the Dagda, the ‘Good God’.
In County Sligo the Sidhe are known as the Gentle Folk. In other places they are the ‘People of Peace’ or the ‘Still Folk’. Once again these are strange titles for a race of beings who are often sighted on the move, as the sluagh sith, the faery host that travels around the countryside, causing chaos and upheaval as they go from one mound to another, especially on the four great festivals. They are often at war with each other at these times, and the clashes of faery battles can be heard ringing out through the land. Most country folk know that it is dangerous to be away from home at such times.
Another name for the Sidhe is sluagh na marbh, the host of the dead. Contrary to what some people believe, the Sidhe are not the souls of those recently departed from this world, for they are of another race entirely. They are not the spirits of the ancestors buried in barrows. Nevertheless, the realms wherein the Dead travel are their realms, the dreamlike world that the Sidhe inhabit, hence they are indeed the hosts of the Dead. By way of contrast, in Donegal they are also known as ‘sluagh beatha’, the hosts of life!
Sightings of the Sidhe have been recorded from all the Celtic countries – Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall. Anyone who takes the time and effort to read through even a fragment of these descriptions will most certainly be impressed by the similarity of detail and experience that runs through them all. Some authors explain this as the survival of a folk memory or collective consciousness, kept alive by stories and tales handed down through the families of each district. But the fact that so many people do see something suggests that sightings are not mere flights of fancy of simple country folk.
Although there are a number of faeries from liturature which had specific names (Oberon, Titania, Puck, Robin Goodfellow, Meg etc.) most faeries in myths and legends were referred to by some local name such as pisky, boggart or trow . The reason for this is the fact that most faeries will not reveal their true names, but only a nickname. The power which ones true name holds over them is well known to wizards and many savage and superstitious peoples as well as to faeries. There are many tales where a faerie holds some threat over a human, and the only escape is by finding out the faerie’s true name, which they often reveal unknowingly while singing to themselves unobserved (so they thought) by anyone. The most familiar of these stories is the tale of Rumpelstilzchen.
The chief lady fairy was known as the Elfin Queen. These little people were thought to have aquired the skills of rudimentary magic and therefore farmers payed homage to them so that there was no murrain on cattle, the crops were not blighted their wives would not miscarry. The little people could sometimes be pursuaded to help villagers using there skilled arts. Sometimes they would disguise themselves as villagers and borrow fruit and cerial from an aquaintence. They were scrupiously honest and repayed all debts. The little people were masters at hiding and dressed mainly in green which may explain their hidden life style. In general the little people were regarded with fear and hatred due to their reputation of being extremely maliscious. Their most cruel practice was to steal babies which was a matter of survival, although they lived in their own world interbreeding with humans was necassary to strengthen their stock.They lived close to the earth, they had gret understanding of wild creatures and with their extreme knowledge of field craft it seemed as though they could be visable and invisable at will.
They buried the dead in stone lined chambers beneath grassy hillocks that were also the home of the fairies. In the fairies world, as in that of the dead, time has no meaning; out of this confusion of ideas, it is thought, came many stories of people who spent years in fairy land, and re-emerged to find only a couple of hours had passed. It is sometimes said that the fairies were only seen in the twinkling of an eye or between one blink and another, although to fairies one second is so long that many things can happen. Another tradition states the opposite, claiming that some people have spent an hour in fairy land only to wake up years later.
When belief in fairies was common few people would talk about their experiences with fairies as they were renowned as guardians of their privacy. People who spied on fairies were blinded, and just talking about fairies was unlucky. Fairies dislike being called by that name, and are therefore known by the terms ‘the little people’, ‘the hidden people’ or ‘the good people’. Legend has also shown that a lot of fairies made their homes under human hearths, and that however well they tried to hide, they usually gave their presence away by stealing food from the fireplace. Elfin queens would be asked to village baptism so that she could cast spells to give the baby good fortune. There are no records of witch trials against these little people as their psychic ability and cunning kept them safe, although innocent people both young and old were burnt or placed on the ducking stool for visiting fairy villages. Joan of Arc, burnt for being a witch, was burnt due to evidence which showed that her grandmother had initiated her, at 12 years old, under the fairy tree at Bourlemont. Tree dwelling fairies, unlike tree spirits are rare, most British fairies are said to live in hollow hills or in a undergroung country where summer never ends. The fairies were wild and compelling dancers, it was believed that any human drawn into their circle would never return.
The classical three Fates were later multiplied into supernatural ladies who directed the destiny of men and attended childbirths. ‘Fay-erie’ was first a state of enchantment or glamour, and was only later used for the fays who wielded those powers of illusion. Although latterly fairies have been understood as diminutive beings inhabiting flowers etc., their true stature, both actual and mythical, is considerably greater. The term ‘fairy’ now cover a large area, from the Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian elves to the British version of the Irish SIDHE dwellers, and the TYLWYTH TEG of Wales, are they bestowing gifts of prophecy and music, living in bliss in their own fairy hills. According to oral tradition, they originate from the angels of the Fall or are children of Adam by Lilith, the elder brethren of humanity who are neither divine nor human, but none the less immortal.