(Article originally published in Disturbed Digest, Issue #4, March 2014.)
At first glance, there may seem to be few links between the
frolicking fairies and the souls of the dead. However, if one delves
deeper into traditional fairy lore, one finds that the fairy realm and
the realm of the dead overlapped. A handful of fairy types functioned as
harbingers of death or summoners of dying souls. On occasion, fairies
would intermingle with the human dead. At times, the spirits of deceased
mortals gathered in fairy places or even behaved rather like fairy
folk. Lost human souls, especially those of children who had died prior
to undergoing the Christian rite of baptism, might take fairy form and
join the ranks of the fays.
Some denizens of the fairy realm had links to the realm of the dead
by heralding the approach of death or summoning the spirit of a dying
human to the otherworld. The keening fairy woman known as the banshee
foretold the forthcoming demise of Irish mortals of Milesian descent,
humans of heroic lineage whose surnames started with " Ó" or
“Mac”(White, 2005). A glimpse of the Highland Bodach Glas, the Dark Grey
Man, signalled impending doom (Briggs, 1976). The gruesome-looking
dullahan would ride the countryside on his thundering black steed and
then stop to hold his severed head aloft to summon the soul of whoever
was about to die (Curran, 1998). The mine-dwelling wichtlein of Germany
warned miners of imminent death or disaster by raising a din as if they
were hard at work (Sikes, 2002). Dunters or powries, noisome resident
spirits of Border fortresses who sounded as if they were beating flax or
milling grain in a quern, would raise a louder ruckus if death or
disaster drew near (Briggs, 1976).
According to tales from Ireland and its remote western isles, at
certain times human souls who had departed their mortal shells would
accompany the fairies in their preternatural revelries. During dark
celebrations held on the night of October the Thirty-First, fairies
reeled hand-in-hand with the risen dead (White, 2005). A man of
Ireland’s western islands named Hugh King discovered that his deceased
friends and dead acquaintances, clad in their long funeral shrouds,
danced at the fairy fair held on November Eve (Wilde, 1887). Out late
one November night, an Inishark woman sighted revenants garbed in white
mingled amongst a great gathering of cavorting fairies (Wilde, 1887). A
grief stricken lass from the same isle spied her late lover gambolling
with the fairies atop their hill when she peered through a ring of herbs
given to her by a lady in white (Wilde, 1887). A shepherdess who
encountered a group of festive fays met a pale young man; a man she knew
had drowned the previous winter (Wilde, 1887). In a tale found in
different locales across Ireland, a man witnessed deceased acquaintances
riding with the fays when he tried unsuccessfully to rescue his dead
wife from a fairy procession (Ó hÓgáin, 2006). The Irish fairy monarch
Finvara was also King of the Dead and ruled over a host of departed
mortals (Briggs, 1978).
Some stories of earthbound souls blurred the line between fairy and
ghost. Noisy spectres of those who had once been human would haunt fairy
raths with their clanking and creaking (White, 2005). The
Northumberland bogy called Dunnie, a shape-shifting prankster who liked
to adopt the guise of a horse or donkey to play practical jokes on
Hazelrigg farmers, had been a plundering Border reiver in life (Briggs,
1976). The Irish Phooka of Kildare, who appeared as an ass and performed
the toilsome tasks of a household fairy, identified itself as the
spirit of an indolent scullion (Briggs, 1978). The English Cauld Lad of
Hilton, a brownie-like entity that the servants of Hilton Hall expelled
in the traditional fashion of laying brownies by leaving him a gift of a
new cloak and hood, was said to be the ghost of a murdered servant boy
(Keightley, 1978). The Cauld Lad of Gilsland, reputed to be the restless
soul of a neglected boy who died of hypothermia, acted like a banshee
and foretold death by shivering and moaning at the bedside of one about
to die (Rose, 1998).
In perhaps the most direct link between fairies and the dead, certain
types of fay were considered to be human spirits endowed with fairy
powers. The sluagh of the Scottish Highlands, dark entities that winged
to and fro across the midnight sky and forced hapless mortals to join in
malicious mischief, were said to be the Host of the Unforgiven Dead
(Briggs, 1976). The bean-nighe, who portended doom by washing
blood-stained clothes in the forlorn streams of both and Ireland and
Scotland, was believed to be the restless shade of a mother who had
perished during childbirth (Briggs, 1976). Cornish tin-miners claimed
that their helpful mine fairies known as knockers had once been Jews who
had toiled in the mines in ancient times (Briggs, 1976). The Welsh
commonly considered their Tylwyth Teg to be the spirits of departed
humans neither entirely evil nor completely good, spirits consigned to
reside in this world’s hidden places until Judgement Day (Sikes, 2002).
The samovily, a fatally seductive southern Slavonic water fairy, was
thought to be either a human bride who had lost her life on the night of
her nuptials or a deceased mortal girl who had never been baptised
(Franklin, 2002). The beautiful vily of Slavonic lore danced in circles
and possessed powers of enchantment and shape-shifting just like their
Fair Folk kin of Western Europe, but some accounts insisted that these
alluring beings were the ghosts of prideful maids or unbaptized
youngsters (Franklin, 2002).
In a recurring theme in fairy lore, the souls of departed human
children who never entered the Christian fold could become mischievous
and even malevolent members of the fairy realm. The sheerie, luminous
Irish sprites who used maleficent magic to lead wayfarers astray, were
thought to be the bitter spirits of unbaptized babes (Curran, 1998).
According to Devonshire lore, their own diminutive mischief-making
pixies shared similar origins (Keightley, 1978). The potentially deadly
tarans who roamed Scottish forests and the nocturnal spunkies who misled
wanderers in Somerset were also believed to be the souls of children
who never underwent the ritual of baptism (Franklin, 2002). The same
explanation was applied to the origins of numerous will-o’-the-wisps
such as Pinket, a will-o’-the-wisp who haunted Worcestershire (Franklin,
Though some people insist that “ghosts are not fairies” (White,
2005), certain aspects of fairy folklore suggest that wayward human
souls did, at times, acquire a fairy existence. The connection went
beyond mere association. Ghostly entities such as the Phooka of Kildare,
Dunnie of Northumberland, and the Cauld Lad of Hilton appeared to
possess fairy-like attributes and exhibit fairy-like behaviour. Fairy
folk such as the sheerie, the sluagh, and the samovily had once been
human. Fairies not only foretold the coming of death and consorted with
the dead, sometimes, they were the dead.
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Briggs, K. (1978). The vanishing people: Fairy lore and legends. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.
Curran, B. (1998). A field guide to Irish fairies. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books.
Franklin, A. (2002). The illustrated encyclopaedia of fairies. London, England: Vega.
Keightly, T. (1978). The world guide to gnomes, fairies, elves, and other little people. New York, NY: Avenel Books.
Ó hÓgáin, D. (2006). The lore of Ireland: An encyclopaedia of myth, legend and romance. Woodbridge, England: The Boydell Press.
Rose, C. (1998). Spirits, fairies, leprechauns, and goblins: An encyclopedia. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.
Sikes, W. (2002). British goblins: Welsh folklore, fairy mythology, legends and traditions. Doylestown, PA: Wildside Press.
White, C. (2005). A history of Irish fairies. New York, NY: Carroll & Graf Publishers.
Wilde, Lady F. S. (1887). Ancient legends, mystic charms, and superstitions of Ireland. Boston, MA: Ticknor and Co.