Oberon’s books- fairy spell books


There is a scattering of evidence to the effect that fairies had their own spell books, as well as their innate magical abilities, which I have described before.

There are only a few references to these spell books:

  • In Robert Kirk’s Secret Commonwealth (chapter 7) he informs us that:
    • “They are said to have many pleasant toyish Books; but the operation of these Pieces only appears in some Paroxysms of antic corybantic Jollity, as if ravished and prompted by a new Spirit entering into them at that Instant, lighter and merrier than their own. Other Books they have of involved abstruse Sense, much like the Rosicrucian Style. They have nothing of the Bible, save collected Parcels for Charms and counter Charms; not to defend themselves with, but to operate on other Animals, for they are a People invulnerable by our Weapons…”;
    • From this we can deduce that there seem to be three varieties of spell book- one to used to send the fairies into some sort of ecstatic dance; a second using scraps of Biblical verse for casting spells on others (rather like local magicians offered to do in human communities) and a third that was employed for more powerful conjuring- perhaps to contact other spirits such as angels, a practice used by such magi as Queen Elizabeth’s own conjuror, John Dee;
  • The Red Book of Menteith- the story goes that a fairy queen banished some troublesome elves from Cnoc-n’an-Bocan (Bogle-knowe, or Hobgoblin-hill) near to Menteith into The red book of Menteith.  The condition was that they would only be released when the laird of Menteith opened the book.  Eventually, this happened by mistake and instantly the released fairies appeared before him demanding work. He had to set them various impossible tasks to be freed of them himself.
  • The Red Book of Appin is another Scottish tome that, J. G. Campbell implies, has power against both witch and fairy spells.  That said, its primary content is concerned with healing sick cattle and with maintaining the fertility of fields (although of course these may both be the subject of fairy blights).  The Red Book was therefore a local cunning man’s book of incantations used for assisting small farmers with their common problems.  The legend is that it came from a mysterious ‘fine gentleman’, although it does not appear clear that he was of fairy origin; when the book was obtained from him by devious magical means, he transformed into many shapes, implying that he was (at least) a wizard and maybe a demon.  He was defeated, however, and the book came into more benign human hands;
  • Thomas Keightley states in his Fairy mythology that the Danes believed that the elle folk had books which they would give to favoured humans and which helped them tell the future.  The existence of such volumes seems to have been a wider Scandinavian belief.  In Iceland the story is told of Jon Gudmundsson of Reydarfjord who met an elf girl called Ima whilst tending the family flock one day.  He and Ima were strongly attracted to each other and during the course of their courtship she told him about a book that her father possessed that was full of marvellous lore and from which Jon could learn a great deal; he would become a poet whose verse would have magical powers and he would foresee the future and ‘never be surprised by things.’  Jon persuaded her to arrange a loan of the book and then generally ‘enjoyed her company.’  The loan was made but then after a fortnight when return of the book was requested, Jon refused.  He was threatened with fairy vengeance.  On Christmas Eve Ima, her father and mother and a man who had been abducted and trapped by the elves planned to attack his home to recover the text.  The plan was betrayed to Jon by the captive human, who had tired of his interminable supernatural life.  Jon was prepared for his attackers’ arrival and slew all four, including Ima, before burning their bodies.

There is tendency for humans to believe that fairy magical powers are wholly innate. Various evidence I have offered in recent posts suggests that the situation may be different: either it is acquired by physical means after birth- whether by dipping in a pool (for which see c.16 of my British fairies), by learning their magic hand gestures, by the application of herbal ointment or by some other form of of physical contact– or it is learned (or at least supplemented) from written sources.  If any of these are at least partially true, it makes our access to supernatural power considerably easier than we might have supposed.


An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.

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