Many people today think of fairies as rainbow-winged pixies prancing about in a sylvan wonderland. However, traditional tales about the denizens of the fairy realm spoke of beings and practices that were far from benign. In the minds and hearts of country folk across Europe, fairies posed a real and dangerous threat to life and well-being.
Although many fairies held an ambivalent attitude towards mortals, some maintained an undying hatred of all humankind. The Scottish called the various types of malevolent fairy the Unseelie Court. This unsavoury collection of malignant entities contained the evil trooping fairies known as the Host or Sluagh, as well as a variety of solitary miscreants.
The unsanctified dead banded together during the darkest hours of the night in the roving host known as the Sluagh. These wretches flew in clouds above the Earth and captured unprotected mortals. Those unlucky enough to fall into their clutches would be dragged along, beaten, and made to fling paralysing elf-shot at cattle and other humans.
Shod in heavy iron boots, Redcap haunted ruined peel towers on the Scottish Border. This fiery-eyed goblin carried a pikestaff in his left hand and periodically re-dyed his crimson hat in human blood. Impervious to ordinary weapons, this vicious fiend could only be routed by Holy Scripture or the sight of a cross.
Duergars, the black dwarfs of northern England, hated mankind with a bitter passion. These taciturn beings clad in lambskin coats, moleskin trousers, and moss caps would use illusion to fool any unwary traveller into taking a fatal misstep. Only those wise in their ways could avoid the wrath of the duergars.
Female beings of a decidedly malicious nature lurked beneath the waters of various English rivers. Peg Powler resided in the Tees, while Jenny Greenteeth inhabited Lancashire streams. Grindylow and Nelly Long-Arms were similar water-demons found in other waterways across the English landscape. All delighted in drowning and even devouring naughty children who strayed too close to the water's edge.
Monstrous trolls troubled the people of western Scandinavia. These hirsute beasts dwelt in mountain caves and preyed upon humans. They were only seen during the hours between dusk and dawn, for the light of the sun would turn then to stone.
Underground spirits known as kobolds plagued German mines. They harassed miners as they worked, frustrating human attempts to find precious metals by stealing tools, meals, and water, and replacing silver ore with that of nickel or arsenical cobalt. However, there were times when kobolds could be unexpectedly helpful.
Bogies, bogles, and bug-a-boos delighted in causing mischief. Some merely played annoying pranks, while others attempted to inflict grievous harm through their malicious tricks. Many, such as the Hedely Kow, possessed the ability to change shape. This trait was often used to torment unsuspecting mortals.
Even those fairies with a kindlier disposition towards humanity still posed a hazard to mankind. Beneficial brownies could become troublesome boggarts if their work was taken for granted by ungrateful farmers. Prying into the secrets of the fair folk was dangerous business, often rewarded with bruises, blights, blindness, or other ills. A mortal partaking of fairy food while visiting their enchanted realm risked eternal entrapment. The fair folk were also responsible for a variety of thefts, including the theft of mortal children.
A coveted child, especially one that lacked the protection provided by Holy charms or cold iron, was at risk of being whisked away by the fay. A changeling would be left in the babe's stead. This replacement may have been a wooden stock imbued with fairy glamour to look alive, a deformed fairy child abandoned by its own mother, or a cantankerous senile fairy disguised as a youngster. In any case, the changeling drained away all of the good fortune of the human household until it was driven from the home, usually through the use of fire or heat. Then the mortal child would be returned unharmed.
Any encounter with the fair folk, "good" or "bad", could be perilous, given their alien morality and emotions. Mortals had to tread with care through a countryside inhabited by a wide variety of potentially dangerous beings. Those that ignored the proper respect toward the "good neighbours", or who didn't protect themselves from their powers, faced possible injury or death. Humans that sought to learn fairy secrets faced savage retribution. Perhaps the best advice regarding the fay came from the Fairy Queen herself, in what she told William Butler Yeats:
"Be careful, and do not seek to know too much about us”.
An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures by Katharine Briggs.
Faeries by Brian Froud and Alan Lee.
A Field Guide to Irish Fairies by Bob Curran.
The Celtic Twilight by W. B. Yeats.
(Originally published in Doorways Magazine, Killer Holiday Issue, Issue 4, January 2008.)
Copyright © 2008 Richard H. Fay