I recently described how we can use a variety of substances and objects as charms against fairies. In this posting, I look at how some actions and words can have a like effect.
Some of the effective actions will be familiar to readers from wider magical practice. For example, drawing a circle around yourself- especially if an iron or steel point is used to do this- will guard an individual from a range of harms, including malign fairies Making the sign of the Christian cross is widely believed to be effective in the same manner as, of course, are Christian prayers or the invocation of holy names, typically the trinity, but also individual saints.
Some actions are less explicable. For example, there is a very peculiar (and frustratingly incomplete) account recorded in Charles Rogers Social Life in Scotland (1886). He describes how the fairies abducted the wife of the miller of Menstrie but how, when riddling meal one day at the door of his barn, he stood in a particular stance or posture that had the effect of breaking the spell and recovering his spouse. Rogers doesn’t expand on this, leaving us desperate for details.
More typically, it was forms of words that were effective against the faes (over and above simply blessing yourself and calling on god). Volume III of Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica (Gaelic Songs) of 1900 contains a range of spoken charms that offer protection against fairies. Many of these are addressed to individual saints, including as Brigit, Mary, Michael, Peter, James, John and Columba. Their assistance is sought either against generalised perils or to help with specific threats.
For example, on waking in the morning you can pray to “Ward off the bane of the fairy women” (these ban sith were plainly seen as a persistent danger, as several prayers are concerned with them); the fairies of the knolls (siodach nan cnoc) are also mentioned. The sith folk as a whole were seen as especially threatening on Thursdays (when a blessing could be intoned against them) and at the time of death, when a person might prayer to be shielded against the evil of the fairies (bho arrais nan sidh).
More precisely identified risks include fairy arrows or darts (which are mentioned in several prayers) and the fairy host or sluagh. One notably vivid prayer to Brigit seeks her blessing to ensure that:
“No seed of the fairy host shall lift me,
Nor seed of airy host shall lift me.”
“Cha tog siodach mi
Cha tog sluagach mi”
As well as people, household items and equipment might be protected, as in this blessing for a loom against gruagachs and fairy women: “Bho gach gruagach is ban-sith.”
William Mackenzie also recorded Gaelic Incantations that he heard on the Hebrides before 1895. He came across a charm against injuries to the spleen and liver by fairies as well as more comprehensive charms guarding against the ‘nine slender fairies’ (‘s air naoi bean seang sithe) or against a more pervasive malign fairy influence:
“We repudiate their evil tricks,
(May) their back be to us,
May their face be from us,
Through merit of the passion and death of our saviour.”
The Mona Miscellany of 1873 records a very similar incantation from the Isle of Man that was to be said at night to protect a home from fairy incursions:
“The peace of God and the peace of man,
The peace of God on Columb Killey,
On each window and each door,
And on every hole admitting moonlight,
And on the place of my rest
And the peace of God on myself.”
Directly comparable to this is a grace that was recorded from a resident of Skye, Farquhar Beaton, during the 1840s, when he was one hundred years old. Nightly he prayed for protection for the old and young, wives and children, sheep and cattle against the ‘power and dominion of the fairies’ (o churnhach agus cheannas nan sithichean). Some might perhaps question the credulity of the people saying such prayers, but as Beaton himself said- “My own two eyes beheld them; my own two ears heard them” (Mo dhu shuil fein a chunnaic iad; mo dha chluas fein a chual iad.) He’d seen the threat and he was taking no chances…
One thing to bear in mind with all of these charms, I am sure, is the need to repeat them in the exact form in which they have been formulated. The Isle of Man also supplies a very good example of this, which is to be found in Dora Broome’s Fairy Tales of the Isle of Man. A man wanted to find a fynoderee to help cure his sickly cow and his wife told him a charm to repeat to lure one out of a tree and into his power:
Come down, for I can see.”
The being would then follow the husband anywhere, but she warned him to cross himself three times immediately afterwards, for fear of butcheragh (witchcraft, or bad magic). Of course, the husband forgot the gesture to go with the words, and bad luck followed: his cow recovered, but it then disappeared along with the fynoderee- and all the other animals and birds living on the farm.
For more on protections against faeries, see my Darker Side of Faery (2021). My Manx Faeries examines the fynoderee and other beings from the Isle of Man in more detail.