Fairies? How can fairies be scary? Well, the type of Fae I’m talking about aren’t your average Disney Tinkerbells. The collective term ‘Fae’ covers all manner of creatures in ancient myths, from hobgoblins, to kelpies, to bloodthirsty giants. Although Ireland is probably the most famed country for homing these capricious, dangerous and downright deadly creatures, Fae can be found all over the world, from the Indian djinn to the Canadian Matshishkapeu.
Faeries in History and Folklore
The idea of Faefolk and magical spirits is prevalent throughout the world. But where does the idea of faeries come from? Different countries have understandably different thoughts on the subject, but there is a theory about European faeries – particularly those of British origin – that has prevailed among scholars of mythology.
“The Pygmy Theory”
Most folklorists and anthropologists are in agreement that the legends of faefolk sprang from memories of conquered dwarvish people. These people lived in the caves or mounds around Europe and used flint arrows and weapons, which was plentiful at the time. In Britain in particular, these small people were conquered by invaders who instead wielded iron weapons – which was stronger by far than flint, and the origin of why cold iron is still used as protection from faeries today. The conquered people retreated to hills, or remote marshlands and mountains – where they could remains safe from their foes.
This theory has been popularised by the writings of John Webster and Jakob Grimm, as well as Scottish folklorist and antiquarian David MacRitchie, who added a more specific theory using the science of archaeology.
‘He argued that the Fians, the people preceding the Scots, and the Picts, of Irish and Scottish history, had been skilled in medicine, magic, music, and masonry, and had lived in hidden underground earth houses, which were later known as fairy hills or fairy forts… The fires that could be glimpsed at night through the tops of their underground dwellings were the “fairy lights” that appeared in folklore across Britain as the lights that led humans astray. Stories of women, men, and children taken away by the “fairies” were in fact the result of stealthy raids carried out by the defeated race as acts of retaliation against their oppressors.’ [Source]
Bran the Blessed vs. King Arthur
Anyone who has ever visited the Tower of London has probably heard the age-old legend that, “If the Tower of London ravens are lost or fly away, the Crown will fall and Britain with it.”
This legend originates from the story of Bran the Blessed, who was both a giant and the King of Britain. As he lay dying, after a battle defending his sister, he asked for his head to be buried at ‘White Hill’ (known now as Tower Hill) in London, so he could protect Britain even in death.
Interestingly enough, this story stirred not only the imaginations of the public, but reportedly jealousy from Arthur, legendary king of the Britons, who took the throne many, many years later. According to legend, he ordered his Knights to remove the buried head of Bran from White Hill because he wanted to assert his supremacy over Celtic superstition and prove that he was the true King of the Britons; the only protection Britain needed.
A fun ending to this clash of wills has some chronicles claiming Arthur turned into a raven at the time of his death. The name ‘Bran’ translates from Welsh as ‘crow’ or ‘raven’. Some might argue this means Bran and Arthur were incarnations of the same mythological figure. Personally, I think Arthur was trying too hard.
Today, the ravens of the Tower are domesticated birds (i.e. they have their wings clipped) so they are unable to fly away – thus ensuring the safety of the nation.
“Trick or Treat!”
Halloween to the Celts was known as Samhain. A spiritual time, it was seen as the night when the boundary between the human world and the Otherworld (Faerie and the spirit world) was at its thinnest. Faeries such as banshees, pukas, shapeshifters and other spirits could travel quite freely between the worlds on this night.
To ward off any evil intent, people would light fires and wear ugly masks or disguises to confuse any spirits who walked the earth and might wish them harm. Those who wished to stay inside on Samhain would instead leave treats at the nearest hawthorn bush, and hope their generosity would appease the Fae and the spirits so they may not be ‘tricked’.
Other traditions have origins that have been lost to us in modern day. For instance, have you ever made a daisy chain? The original reason for this fun summer tradition was protection. People believed that daisies were a pure flower and that wearing a circlet of them anywhere on your body would ward off the evil magic of the Fae.
Faeries around the World
Faeries of myth and legend are not a kind of people to mess with. They steal babies, kidnap lovers just because they take a fancy to them, curse anyone who offends them (and they are very easily offended) and even sometimes kill for sport. Here are a few to avoid:
This shapeshifting water-faery enjoys taking long strolls by riverbanks and lakes disguised as a beautiful horse. The Kelpie will entice a rider onto its back, at which point it will rush towards the water and dive in. Some legends say it is the Kelpie’s speed that keeps the rider on its back, others say there is a glue-like substance on its skin that holds the rider fast. All tales agree what happens once the Kelpie enters the water, though. The rider is devoured immediately, and without mercy, never to be seen again.
A fiery household “luck bringer” from Lithuanian folklore. The Aitvaras is a shapeshifter who can take the form of a cockerel or a dragon depending on where he is.
He brings prosperity to his owner at the expense of the neighbours, stealing gold and food and other forms of wealth in exchange for a steady diet of omelettes… and eventually your immortal soul.
In Innu (native people of modern day Canada) mythology, Matshishkapeu (literally the “Fart Man”) is the most powerful of Fae. He proved himself when the Kanipinikassikueu (Caribou Master) refused to give the Innu any caribou to eat. Matshishkapeu was so angry that he cursed the Caribou Master with a painful case of constipation. Finally, the Kanipinikassikueu relented, and Matshishkapeu then cured him of his ailment.