“I conjure thee, Sybilia, o gentle virgin of fairies”- how to see fairies


Arthur Rackham, ‘He played until the room was entirely filled with gnomes,’ Grimms’ fairy tales

In a recent post I considered ways of protecting oneself from supernatural attention. Some people, of course, have always actively wished to attract fairies to themselves and to be able to see them.  Folk tradition recommends a number of ways of doing this:

  • being born with the gift- some people have a natural ability to see fairies.  One of Evans Wentz’ informants felt it was fairly common- one in three people- whereas the Reverend Kirk presented  endowment with the second sight as a far rarer attribute.  In The secret commonwealth he described the ‘tabhaisver’ or seer as having more acute or ‘exalted’ vision than most.  This was “a native Habit in some, descended from their Ancestors, and acquired as ane artificiall Improvement of their natural Sight in others; … for some have this Second Sight transmitted from Father to Sone thorow the whole Family, without their own Consent or others teaching, proceeding only from a Bounty of Providence it seems, or by Compact, or by a complexionall Quality of the first Acquirer” (c.12).  Even with this power though, the seer could only observe fairies provided s/he did not blink.
  • being in touch with nature– Tom Charman, resident of the New Forest, told Arthur Conan Doyle in the early 1920s that his gift of seeing fairies depended upon his being close to nature.  He had seen them as a child but had then lost the gift for some time as he reached adulthood.
  • using a four leaf clover–  as described in an earlier post, a four leaf clover can protect against fairies but it can also reveal them, by dispelling their ‘glamour.’  For example, Evans Wentz was told by an old woman how her nursemaid was able to see ‘scores’ of fairies swarming around her if she slipped a clover leaf into the grass pad used to carry a milk pail on her head (p.177);
  • being in an odd numbered group of people- Wirt Sikes was told by a Monmouth schoolteacher that uneven numbers people were more likely to see fairies and that men were more likely than women (British goblins p.106);
  • looking through an ‘elf-bore’– a piece of wood from which a knot has fallen out, leaving a hole through, is an ideal tool for seeing fairies.  Hold the ‘elf-bore’ to your eye and, again, the glamour is dissipated.  Kirk also recommended that the person look backwards through the fir knot (c.12);
  • certain light conditions– as I have described in an earlier post, a person is more likely to see fairies at twilight, allegedly for physiological reasons.  Gathering material in Wales in the late nineteenth century, John Rhys also learned on the Lleyn Peninsula that there was a greater chance of meeting the Tylwyth Teg on days when it was a little misty- when there was a light drizzle called gwlithlaw (dew-rain).  The cynical might remark that this means that most days will be good for seeing fairies in Wales…(!); what is not clear is whether these light conditions are favourable because they make faery more visible or because the Fair Folk prefer a little concealment;
  • physical contact– being in contact with the fairy or with a seer will transfer their magical sight.  One might place a foot on that of the fairy- John Rhys tells the tale of a Welsh farmer who was accosted outside his home by a fairy male complaining that  the human household’s waste was draining down his chimney and into his house; when the farmer placed his foot on the others, he was able to see below ground a house and a street of which he had never before been aware (Celtic folklore p.230).  Alternatively one could touch the seer in some way: Kirk describes how “the usewall Method for a curious Person to get a transient Sight of this otherwise invisible Crew of Subterraneans, (if impotently and over rashly sought,) is to put his [left Foot under the Wizard’s right] Foot, and the Seer’s Hand is put on the Inquirer’s Head, who is to look over the Wizard’s right Shoulder, (which hes ane ill Appearance, as if by this Ceremony ane implicit Surrender were made of all betwixt the Wizard’s Foot and his Hand, ere the Person can be admitted a privado to the Airt;) then will he see a Multitude of Wight’s, like furious hardie Men, flocking to him hastily from all Quarters, as thick as Atoms in the Air” (Secret commonwealth c.12);
  • spellsmagic was the last certain means by which to be able to observe fairies.  it could be used both to attract and then to ‘bind’ them- that is, to stop them disappearing again. In The discoverie of witchcraft Reginald Scot helpfully provides a selection of spells and procedures for these purposes (Book XV, chapter 8 & 9).  Sibylia, the fairy queen, is commanded to appear quickly, and without deceit or tarrying, in a chalk circle before the summoner, “in the form and shape of a beautiful woman in bright and vesture white, adorned and garnished most fair…”  If at first she does not appear, repeat the spell, ‘for doubtless she will come.’  I’ll leave it up to readers to decide whether or not to give this a go…


Further reading

Fairy magic may be conveyed or acquired by various means, then.  You can read elsewhere about discovering spells from the fairy spell books or learning their magic hand gestures.  An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).

8 thoughts on ““I conjure thee, Sybilia, o gentle virgin of fairies”- how to see fairies

  1. I’m now not certain where you’re getting your info, but great topic. I must spend some time learning more or figuring out more. Thanks for wonderful information I was on the lookout for this information for my mission.


    1. Alex- thanks for the comment. I’m drawing from the main fairy books I’ve mentioned in my recent post on recommended reading, as well as a lot of the original 16th and 17th century texts, almost all of which are available now on line. John


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