Faeries and the Christian faith

John Anster Fitzgerald, The Fairy Passage

The relationship of the Christian religion to fairy-kind is a very ambiguous or ambivalent one.  On the whole, faeries are regarded as alien beings who stand wholly and permanently outside the Christian community.  This can be seen most clearly in the various origin myths that have been formulated to situate fairies within a Christian world view.

Lost Souls

One common explanation is that the fairies are fallen angels who followed Lucifer when he staged his rebellion in heaven.  They were, however, left in limbo.  When the gates of heaven and hell were sealed, some of the rebel angels were isolated between the two.  They went to hide amidst the rocks and trees of earth until judgment day and so have become the fairies (see, for example, Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, vol.2, 327). In one version of this account of fairy origins, the decreasing sightings of fairies are also explained. Rather than being driven away by electric light and aeroplanes, it seems that the fairies are seen less because, in the last century, god has taken pity on the outcasts and has begun to let them back into heaven for a last chance (Drever, The Lure of the Kelpie, 1937).

Reflecting this view, there is a widespread story in Britain concerning the fairies’ anxiousness over their ultimate salvation.  A Scottish version can be found in Keightley’s Fairy Mythology, under the title of The Fairy’s Inquiry.

“A clergyman was returning home one night after visiting a sick member of his congregation. His way led by a lake and, as he proceeded, he was surprised to hear most melodious strains of music. He sat down to listen. The music seemed to approach coming over the lake accompanied by a light. At length he discerned a man walking on the water, attended by a number of little beings, some bearing lights, others musical instruments. At the beach the man dismissed his attendants, and then walking up to the minister saluted him courteously. He was a little grey-headed old man, dressed in rather an unusual garb. The minister having returned his salute begged of him to come and sit beside him. He complied with the request, and on being asked who he was, replied that he was one of the Daoine Shi. He added that he and they had originally been angels, but having been seduced into revolt by Satan, they had been cast down to earth where they were to dwell till the day of doom. His object now was, to ascertain from the minister what would be their condition after that awful day. The minister then questioned him on the articles of faith; but as his answers did not prove satisfactory, and as in repeating the Lord’s Prayer, he persisted in saying wert instead of art in heaven, he did not feel himself justified in holding out any hopes to him. The fairy then gave a cry of despair and flung himself into the loch, and the minister resumed his journey.”

Keightley, pages 385-6

This story implies an unhappiness with their indeterminate position, but another account states that the fairies can sometimes be heard in their knolls, singing a song that celebrates that they are not of the seed of Adam and Abraham but rather are descended from the ‘Proud Angel.’  On the Isle of Man, in fact, the little people are called the cloan moyrney, the ‘proud clan,’ and there is a prayer “jee saue mee voish cloan ny moyrn” (‘God save me from the children of pride’).

Another (very bizarre) origin myth tells how Jesus was walking the world and, one day, visited a poor woman in her cottage.  She had a very large family and, when she realised who was at the door, she hid a number of her children from her visitor.  Jesus was offended by her subterfuge and, when he left, declared that the concealed children would not be seen again, because he had turned them into fairies.  The story fails to make much sense on several levels, and the disproportionate cruelty of the response to the mother’s embarrassment is impossible to justify (though I recall it’s not entirely out of character with some episodes in the New Testament).  Why the woman should be ashamed at the size of her family is not explained and we can only assume that the account reflects some deeper discomfort with natural sexuality and fertility within the religion.

Symons, Earthly Paradise, 1934

Holy Innocents

Lastly, there are origin myths that are rather more benign, in that they do not judge the fairy folk- although they still exclude them from the Christian community and the perceived benefits of the faith.  As I have described before, in Cornwall it was said that the pixies were either ghosts or the dead returned or they were the souls of children who were still-born or who died before baptism (see, for example, Evans Wentz Fairy Faith pp.172, 179 & 183).  In Wales the tylwyth teg were sometimes explained as being the spirits of virtuous Druids or the ghosts of prehistoric races (Evans Wentz pp.147 & 148). Lastly, in Highland Scotland, there was a belief in spirits called taran who were children who had died unbaptised and now wandered the woods and wastes, lamenting their fate.  These little beings were often seen and evidently bore a close relationship or resemblance to the sith folk (see Shaw, History of the Province of Moray, 1775).

This last category of beings plainly comprises spirits who are without sin in Christian terms: they never lived long enough to sin, or they lived ‘good’ lives in times before Christianity existed.  All the same, they are outside the fold of the church and beyond salvation in conventional eschatology.  This underlines how different fairies are: whatever physical similarities there may be, they are from another world, another dimension, and, as such, they can never participate spiritually in the same experience as humans.

People of Peace

It is very strange, therefore, to turn to some of the prayers and charms contained in Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica (Gaelic Songs).  I have described charms included in these volumes previously: people would pray to the trinity and the saints for protection against fairies and the hosts and all the harm that they could inflict. So far, so familiar.

Turn, then, to this prayer for peace, which seeks to be with Jesus Christ in the dwelling of peace, the paradise of gentleness-

“and in the fairy bower of mercy.” (ann an siothbrugh na h-iochd)

(vol.3, 177)

A second prayer for peace also seeks the “peace of fairy bowers” (sith nan siothbrugh). Elsewhere Mary and Brigit are described as a fairy swan and a fairy duck of peace (lacha shith Mhoire na sith) respectively (vol.3, 269 & vol.1, 317).  Possibly the latter images combine some sense of lightness, softness and a magical quality (?)

These references are surprising and confusing.  The ‘fairy bower’ seems to mean the fairies’ normal dwelling: elsewhere Carmichael refers to “the fairy bower beneath the knoll” (vol.2. 286) whilst in another charm ‘fairy wort’ is picked on top of the ‘fairy bower’ (bruth) (vol.2, 162).  The Gaelic word brugh has several meanings: it can denote a large house or mansion, an underground dwelling, a fairy mound and, lastly, a fortified tower, which we generally know today as a broch.  It appears that all these meanings are wrapped up together in the prayers and invocations cited.  Brochs are, for example, sites of fairy presence and power.  For example, at Houstry in Caithness in 1810 a man took building materials from a ruined broch near his farm.  This incurred the deep displeasure of the sith folk living there, and they inflicted a plague upon the cattle of everyone living in the neighbourhood.  Secondly, at around the same date on Shetland, a fiddle player called Hakki Johnson was passing the Broch of Houlland one night when he heard music being played inside by the trows.  He was able to memorise the tune, which has been passed down since as the Wast Side Trows Reel.  A man on Skye who demolished the ‘fairy bower’ of Dun Gharsain at Bracadale in order to build some pens for his livestock only escaped a disastrous revenge from the fairies because he had been drinking milk from a cow that had grazed on the protective herb mothan.  This ‘bower’ again is termed a bruth and is, very evidently, a broch, one of several found beside Loch Bracadale.

In conclusion, we have to reconcile ourselves top the contradictory evidence that ‘fairy’ was used both in a negative sense, implying a threat that required holy protection, and (at the very same time) the fairies were associated with peace and other heavenly qualities…

2 thoughts on “Faeries and the Christian faith

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s