One of the theories of fairy origins is that they represent the spirits of ancestral dead- the departed have been transformed into immortal beings. For example, in the West Country pixies are believed to be the souls of unbaptised children or of druids and other heathens. The association of the pixies with standing stones, long barrows and stone circles naturally reinforces this particular idea.
Others have argued that the fairy preference for green is symbolic of death and decay rather than vibrant and vigorous growth, as is most commonly supposed (and which is another origin theory: for example, William Blake in the preface to the Descriptive catalogue prepared for his solo exhibition in Soho in 1809 observed that the fairies of both Shakespeare and Chaucer are “rulers of the vegetable world.” Blake’s own fairies had a similar animating function). The so-called Green Children of Woolpit, when initially found, ate only green beans, which Katherine Briggs suggested might again link them with death.
In the surviving folklore, the evidence as a whole is not conclusive on the theory that fairies represent departed ancestors: the dead are definitely present in fairy land, but these deceased persons are not the fairies themselves and, in fact, they may not actually be dead at all.
Are the fairies dead?
In the Cornish story of the ‘fairy dwelling on Silena moor’ a farmer called Noy gets lost on the moor and comes upon a party in a house. He meets a girl who turns out to be a former fiancee of his, someone who had apparently died three or four years previously. His lost love warns Noy not to eat the food at the feast- she herself had done so and had as a result been rendered into a state in which she appeared to be dead to the human world, when in fact a sham body (a stock) was left behind whilst she had been kidnapped and taken to serve the fairies. Similar examples include Katherine Fordyce of Unst on Shetland, who was believed to have died in child-birth but who had really been taken to act as a nurse maid to the Trows. Katherine ate fairy food and so became trapped with them. Lastly, in the tale of the ‘Tacksman of Auchriachan’, the tacksman (tenant farmer) stumbles upon a strange house in the hills in which a woman whom he knows to be very recently deceased is discovered by him acting as a housekeeper for the fairies. Campbell recorded the widespread Highland belief that men, women and children were regularly carried off underground by the fairies, which explained why in Scottish folk tales people long dead were so often seen in the fairies’ company (Popular tales of the West Highlands, 1890, vol.2, p.65).
In the Middle English poem Sir Orfeo the knight visits the castle of the fairy king in search of his abducted wife. There he sees many people “thought dead, and nere nought” (‘and yet not’). Some of these were headless, some lacked limbs, some were badly wounded, mad, drowned, burned, had choked on food or had died in child birth. Of all of them, the poet states “Eche was thus in this world ynome/ With fairi thither ycome” (‘Each was thus taken from this world and had come there by enchantment’).
Magic is used to steal away humans by the illusion of their deaths. They are then trapped in the supernatural realm by consuming food and drink there. It has been argued that this element of the folk tales confirms the ‘land of the dead’ theory: in some early cultures, offerings of food were made to deceased ancestors and so partaking of these transforms the living person and transports them to the realm of the dead (see Dr Henry Bett, English myths and legends, c.1). However, the permanent state of earthly death need not apply to the those abducted to faery.
The fairy enchantment can be overcome, all the same, it seems. An account from Skye reveals that wetting your left eye with spit will dispel the fairy glamour and defeat the captivity (Wentz p.97). The woman in this story escapes, but it must be confessed that she is uniquely lucky. Mostly, a sojourn of any duration in fairyland will change the body so that it cannot revert to its old life. This is the result either of the differential passing of time in fairyland or physical alterations to the body. The subsequent cause of death may be simple grief when the returning captive finds that everyone s/he knew and loved has died during the prolonged absence, however short it may have seemed to the abductee; alternatively, death is a reaction to touching human food, which is now effectively poisonous.
To conclude, the status of visitors to faery remains uncertain. They sometimes are found underground (as if interred), but by no means always- they can be encountered in ordinary seeming houses too. They are not met with dressed all in green like their hosts/ captors, which might have signified a change of status, and they continue with mundane tasks like cleaning and cooking. Travel to fairyland therefore is not death- it just looks like it to those left behind. Those transported remain alive, but in a place which will transform them, so that they are never able to return to their old life.
This discussion should also be read in the context of fairy religion and the information we have on ‘laying’ or exorcising fairies, which suggests that fays and ghosts may sometimes be related or identical.