One of the staple texts for many of us interested in faery lore is Evans Wentz’ 1911 Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries. I have often cited from it in my postings, because it contains a wealth of interviews, carried out during the first decade of the last century, with elderly country people who were still close to fairy traditions.
Recently, I was referred back to this valuable book by something else I had been reading and reread a section I’d not examined so closely before. A Welsh informant, John Jones, a bard from Ynys Mon (Anglesey), described the tylwyth teg as “a kind of spirit race from a spirit world.” This phrase struck me and set me searching for all the views on the ‘Nature of Fairies’ that Evans Wentz had collected.
What I summarise here are the opinions of over four dozen individuals whom Evans Wentz interviewed when preparing his book. I have included here only the witnesses from Scotland, Wales, Isle of Man and Cornwall, in line with my ‘British Fairies’ focus. What emerges are differences between the different ‘Celtic’ nations, as well as various common ideas. Almost everyone agreed that the fairies were a type of spirit, but beliefs as to their exact nature differed across Britain. There were also some religious and ‘learned’ interpretations that were encountered everywhere in the British Isles. I’ll deal with these briefly first.
A number of widely respected and accepted theories have explained fairy origins for several centuries. Inevitably, they were repeated to Evans Wentz.
The Christian church proved surprisingly accommodating to fairy belief: in fact, one minister in Montgomeryshire suggested that “God allowed them to appear in times of great ignorance to convince people of the existence of an invisible world.” (p.146)
The idea that the fairies were the fallen angels trapped between heaven and hell when their gates were closed following Lucifer’s rebellion was a popular explanation mentioned to Evans Wentz by over half a dozen of his interviewees. Another religious theory, that is often found in sources, was recounted to him by an elderly woman in Carmarthen: she understood that the fairies were members of a very large family that had been hidden from Jesus once when he visited their mother. Because she had been ashamed that she had twenty children, and had concealed some of them, he turned them into fairies and they were never seen by her again (p.153).
John Davies of Ballasalla on Man, a herb doctor and seer, meanwhile told Wentz that the fairies were “the lost souls of the people who died before the flood.” Summarising Davies’ evidence, Wentz said he was sure that his interlocutor’s visions were genuine, but that “whatever he may have seen has been very much coloured in interpretation by his devout knowledge of the Christian bible, and by his social environment.” (p.123)
Scientific explanations were also offered, reflecting the latest thinking of the period. A couple of informants mentioned the theory of MacRitchie that fairies were memories of pygmy former races inhabiting Britain; another couple of the more middle class and better-read contacts described them as ‘astral’ beings, borrowing from contemporary Theosophy and Spiritualism.
Frances Tolmie, native of Skye, had this to say to Wentz on these sorts of ideas, though. She believed the fairy faith was very ancient but that “With the loss of Gaelic in our times came the loss of folk-ideals. The classical and English influences combined had a killing effect, so that the instinctive religious feeling which used to be among our people when they kept alive the fairy traditions is dead. We have intellectually constructed creeds and doctrines which take its place.” (p.99)
Miss Tolmie was evidently pessimistic as well as very wise, but there was still plenty of traditional information to gather.
The general view in Scotland was that the sith are a tribe or race of spirits, who can appear to us in the likeness of men and women (p.105). However, a clear distinction was made between the fairies living under the hills and those who are numbered amongst the aerial host or sluagh. As Marian MacLean of Barra stated, “they are both spirits of the dead and other spirits not the dead.” (p.109) The sluagh comprises the souls or ghosts of the dead; the sith living under the knolls are spirits of another kind. This is very clear and Sir Walter Scott seemed to say something very similar. He recorded a story of a woman who was abducted and conveyed underground (“to secret recesses”) where she recognised someone ‘who had been mortal but had been trapped’ (by eating the food there). Evidently this individual is not exactly, dead, nor fully living any longer (Scott, The Lady of the Lake, pp.107-111).
For Scottish witnesses, this dichotomy raised further questions: as I’ve described in a post on the fairy host, people are often snatched up by the sluagh or may enter a fairy hill and join a dance. How, physically, did this work? John MacNeil of Barra stated firmly “when they took people they took body and soul together.” Murdoch MacLean, who lived on the same island, seemed to agree “the fairies had a mighty power of enchanting natural people, and could transform the physical body in some way.” Humans, as corporeal beings, may enter a spirit world, but it needs magic to do so. (pp.102 & 113)
It was agreed in Wales that fairies were a spirit race with human characteristics, who might be seen by some people, but not by others, and who might appear or disappear at will.
The Reverend Josiah Jones of Machynlleth described the tylwyth teg as “living beings halfway between something material and spiritual.” Mr D. Davies-Williams of Montgomery said they were “a real race of invisible or spiritual beings living in an invisible world of their own.” (p.145) The Reverend T. M. Morgan, of Newhcurch near Carmarthen, also stated that they “live in some invisible world to which children on dying might go to be rewarded or punished, according to their behaviour on this earth.” We have to note the reverend gentleman’s rather unorthodox notion of heaven, here. (p.150)
Louis Foster Edwards of Harlech also tried to define Faery: “The world in which they lived was a world quite unlike ours, and mortals taken to it by them were changed in nature.” ( my italics; p.144) They were visitors only to our world, having no homes here, said David Williams JP of Carmarthen. He also stated that the tylwyth teg were “aerial beings [who] could fly and move about in the air at will. They were a special order of creation.”
This was the nature of the tylwyth teg; as for their origins, Wentz’ Welsh informants believed that they might be the spirits of virtuous Druids or the ghosts of prehistoric races. (pp.147 & 148)
Isle of Man
The spiritual nature of the ‘Little People’ (the mooinjer veggey) was accepted by Wentz’ Manx informants. They were perhaps ghosts or the spirits of dead people; one witness termed them ‘Middle World Men,’ who weren’t good enough for heaven or bad enough for hell. This concept of ‘intermediate’ status closely echoes one of the reports from Wales (pp.117 & 124).
In Cornwall, too, the spiritual nature of the pixies was affirmed repeatedly to Evans Wentz. There were several ideas as to their origins. They were, perhaps, the souls of the ancient inhabitants of the land (pp.169 & 176), much as was proposed to him in Wales. They may have been ghosts or the dead returned (pp.172 & 179); they may also have been the souls of children who were still-born (p.183).
Rather like in Wales, there was also evidence of the idea that the pixies did not really belong in our world. John Guy, a fisherman from Sennen, recalled how his mother had said “they are a sort of people wandering about the world with no home or habitation.” In the same vein, John Male of Delabole described them as “a race of little people who live out in the fields.” (pp.182 & 184).
A number of important points emerge from this overview of the witnesses’ evidence. It was widely understood throughout Britain that Faery was a separate and materially different place, or state, of being; it was seen to be a different dimension, as we might say today.
The major variation upon this was Scotland, as we’ve seen. This ambivalence can, in fact, be detected as far back as the seventeenth century. In various witch trials we hear the fairies described as- for example- the “earthles king and earthles quene” (Janet Anderson, Stirling, 1621) or “unearthlische creatures” or “uneardlie wights” (Stephen Maltman, Gargunnock, 1628). Yet, at the same time, other accused persons could claim to have had bodily experiences such as “going with the farie twyse” (Marable Couper, Orkney, 1628) and the sexual relationships I have described before.
Following from the perception of fairies as beings of another world, people struggled to understand how contact with faery affected humans. We have examined the risks of eating fairy food: how exactly was a physical being affected by the consumption of spirit sustenance? It is clear that people who are taken by the fairies will experience some kind of transformation, at least temporarily; proximity to spirits and their spirit world can, however, have longer lasting effects, as I have described several times, which are both psychological as well as physiological.