A study of the folklore records reveals that a range of objects, many of them extremely ordinary, have been found to be efficacious as charms that ward off or repel fairy harm. They fall into several broad categories, although most of them are natural materials.
A number of commonly occurring rocks and such like substances seem to dispel the fairy presence. Iron is by far the most famous of these, being effective in any shape- whether a knife, a horse shoe, a pin or needle, pairs of tongs or the bolt of a door, but other less well-known (yet equally potent) materials include:
- A hot coal thrown in a vat of brewing ale, which will prevent the fairies spoiling it. Likewise, live (that is burning) coals carried by travellers will prevent them being misled or abducted during their journey;
- Amber beads sewn into a child’s clothes will prevent its abduction;
- Salt will certainly drive off the fairies, scattered around or put into food stuffs that you don’t want stolen (I’ve discussed the power of salt separately);
- In the Highlands, calves’ ears were smeared with tar just before May Day to protect them against theft;
- The last, rather well known, natural object in this category is the so called adder stone, a naturally holed stone that could be worn around the neck to protect an individual or might be hung over a byre or stable to safeguard the livestock. When not in use, the stones were often kept safe in iron boxes which stopped the fairies trying to interfere with them. The antiquarian Edward Lhuyd, visiting Scotland in 1699, recorded that these ‘self-bored’ stones were also known as snake buttons, cock-knee stones, toad stones, snail stones and mole stones.
It is pretty well known that sprigs of rowan repels faeries; other plants equally repulsive to the faes are:
- Fresh nettles, which, if laid on a milk churn will stop them hindering the churning (according to Manx belief). In this connection, see Guilpin’s play Skialaetheia (1598) in which a character says “I applaud myself, for nettle stinging thus this fayery elfe”;
- Vervane and dill can dispel evil influences, as can milkwort and mugwort. Other handy herbs are mistletoe, nightshade, yarrow, groundsel, rue and the sap of ash trees. Burnt bindweed would safeguard a baby in a cradle, as would four leaved clover;
- In Wales, meanwhile, it was said that a four leaved clover (combined, apparently, with nine grains of wheat) helped you to see the fairies- which would certainly enable you to avoid them if need be;
- On the Hebrides, St John’s Wort and pearl wort both granted a general protection to cattle and people;
- Sugar water, especially if it was served from a silver spoon or cup (or at least, from a receptacle containing a silver coin) would help ensure that a mother and her new born baby were safe from unwelcome faery attention. Even humble tea apparently drove fairies away in one Welsh case;
- On Skye, oat cakes were said to have a protective effect. Quite whether this derives from the oats themselves or from the fact that they have been processed by baking and very possibly salted is less certain;
- In county Durham, an elder branch was said to guard against witches and fairies. On the Isle of Man the fairies were said to dwell in elder trees, but elder springs could also be carried to ward off the faes- and even to strike them;
- Also on Man, a willow cross would protect against bugganes and fynoderees, but how much efficacy derived from the wood and how much from the religious significance of the shape, I can’t tell (see later for religious items).
I’ve described the effects of stale urine before, but an odd variety of animal parts and by-products could prove revolting to fairies- some understandable, some more surprising:
- Drawing blood was believed to drive off the fairies on Orkney and Shetland;
- On the Isle of Man, two special animal bones were found to have powerful effect. These were the crosh bollan, which is the upper part of the palate of the wrass fish, and the so-called Thor’s Hammer, which is in fact from a sheep’s mouth and prevents fairy leading. Manx fishermen would carry the crosh bollan for protection at sea;
- Burning leather repelled fairies from houses (see next section) as did the presence of a black cockerel;
- Near Stirling, in central Scotland, it was recorded in 1795 that new born calves would be forced to eat a little dung as this would prevent both witches and elves harming or stealing them.
It’s quite well-known that red threads are effective against fairies, for example tied around a child’s throat to protect them from taking or woven into the hair of a cow’s tail to prevent the fairies stealing its milk. If you wanted to double your protection, securing a spring of rowan to someone or something with a red thread was recommended.
A burning rag carried round a woman in childbirth three times would stop the fairies taking her and her new born baby, it was said on Orkney and Shetland. It’s also reported that, when the trows smelled the smoke from the rag, they would express their displeasure in a rhyme: “Wig wag, jig jag,/ Ill healt so weel/ Thu wes sained/ Wi’ a linen rag.” To be fair, though, the smell of the smouldering material was probably the really effective part of this ceremony- for comparison, burning peats were also carried around farms on Shetland at Yule to ward off the trows. The combination of the smoke plus the flame (recall the lit coals earlier) appear to have been what discouraged the trows.
Wells & Well Water
As I have described previously, faery kind have an ambivalent relationship to wells, sometimes inhabiting them, sometimes avoiding them, sometimes giving their waters healing properties. In Wales, wells would be protected from the fairies by circling them with stones painted white; however the water from some springs was reputed to keep the fairies at bay- for example, St Leonards Well at Sheep’s Tor on Dartmoor.
Linked to the possibly erroneous belief that fairies are fallen angels or emissaries of the devil and, as such, innately antithetical to all aspects of Christian religion, items such as bibles, psalm and prayer books were constantly regarded as sure remedies against fairy threat. Even a few pages torn from a holy book could work, it was said in Scotland. It was found that an open bible could be especially potent, if carried around the person or place to be blessed and protected. On Shetland, plaiting crosses out of straws or the livestock’s tail hairs was a further precaution undertaken.
As will be seen, a variety of items carried with you can provide excellent protection against fairy interference and abduction. Properly equipped, you should not need to fear being pixie-led or being taken. Luckily, too, although some of these items are quite rare, many are readily available to all.
For further discussion, see my Darker Side of Faery (2021):