What’s the difference between angels and faeries? This is a question which, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, seemed far less settled than may be the case today. An astrological chart found in a manuscript in the Ashmolean Museum, Cambridge, for example, states that people born under Jupiter and Sagittarius will have good fortune, will be prosperous on long journeys and will enjoy “many visions, [being] apt to see fairie spirits and Angels and to converse with them.” [MS Ashmole 363 f.70r]
That there was not necessarily any hard and fast difference between the two types of supernatural entity comes over most clearly from the records of those who tried to contact and converse with angels or faeries. As angels derived from an incorruptible celestial region, there were perceived to be major barriers in the way of contact between them and mortals. One way of overcoming this was to trap the angel in a crystal; another was for the human to go through lengthy and rigorous rituals of purification before trying to summon an angel, so that they to some degree approached the angel in material purity before they were in contact.
As I’ve described before, identical procedures were followed in order to successfully contact and control a faery. Abstinence and cleansing would be required and crystals were actively employed. In summoning and binding faeries too, Christian invocations and charms would be employed. For example, the spell to conjure up the faery called Elaby Gathen found in British Library manuscript MS Sloane 1727 called on the spirit “in the name of the father, of the sonne, and of the holy ghost,” naming too Tetragrammaton (i.e. YHWH- Jehovah), Emanuel, Messiah, Alpha and Omega, the Blessed Virgin, Elohim and many other such Hebrew names. As I remarked previously, all of this religious terminology would be assiduously intoned, even if the plan was to summon and secure a faery being in order to have sex with her…
It’s not wholly clear from the earlier sources exactly how the faeries were categorised in relation to angels. Paracelsus, for example, saw them as distinct: there were angels, devils, the souls of the dead and elementals (which included the subterranean gnomes and the airy sylphs). His theories were rather individual, though. Others from that period weren’t always so strict or precise in differentiating the two. The Elizabethan magician John Dee, working with his scryer Edward Kelley, made contact (they believed) with angels. Dee did this to gain secret information and wisdom from the heavenly beings; much of this was imparted to the pair in the angelic language, which they called Enochian. It’s worth remarking that hidden knowledge and warnings of future events have often been sought from faeries- and that they too are often said to speak their own tongue.
Later evidence suggests that many people thought of the faeries as much more closely related to the angels than Paracelsus had supposed. The evidence of this comes from Evans Wentz’ Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries. Quite a few witnesses told him that the faeries numbered amongst the fallen angels. When Lucifer led his rebellion against god, a large number of angels followed him. Many descended into hell with Satan but some were trapped between heaven and hell at the point that the gates of each were closed. These angels became the faes- too good for Hell, too bad for Heaven. The faeries understood themselves to be “the seed of the Proud One,” cursed to hide in holes on the earth surface until Judgment Day settles their uncertain fate (see Evans Wentz pages 85, 105, 109, 115, 129 & 154). These ideas are found as far back as English manuscripts from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries (The South English Legendary and Life of Adam & Eve).
Evans Wentz heard these accounts across the Hebrides, on Barra and Harris, and it is very likely that his witnesses were Gaelic speaking Catholics, preserving folk tradition of much earlier generations. However, he also heard the same story on the Isle of Man (perhaps a remnant of Celtic Catholicism) and also from a woman in Pembrokeshire, less likely to have preserved pre-Reformation ideas. In contrast, the faeries as fallen angels doesn’t appear to have been a concept known in England by the time Victorian collectors were recording accounts.
That said, there is some indication from folk magical practices that the faeries’ status as relatives of the devil and demons was known. ‘Witch marks’ are commonly found in churches and, later, in domestic buildings, not just houses but barns and stables. They were used to protect doors and windows, including keyholes- and we know that faeries regularly entered homes through the keyholes- see, for example, John Clare’s poem ‘January’ from the Shepherd’s Calendar (1827):
“And how the other tiny things
Will leave their moonlight meadow-rings,
And, unperceiv’d, through key-holes creep,
When all around have sunk to sleep,
To feast on what the cotter leaves,
Mice are not reckon’d greater thieves.
They take away, as well as eat,
And still the housewife’s eye they cheat,
In spite of all the folks that swarm
In cottage small and larger farm;
They through each key-hole pop and pop,
Like wasps into a grocer’s shop,
With all the things that they can win
From chance to put their plunder in; —
As shells of walnuts, split in two
By crows, who with the kernels flew;
Or acorn-cups, by stock-doves pluck’d,
Or egg-shells by a cuckoo suck’d;”
The marks- typically circles and letter-like shapes scratched in plaster, wood or stone- were also made to protect dark places in houses- the very types of places that were believed to be haunted by ‘nursery sprites‘ such as Tom Poker and Rawhead and Bloodybones.
Currently, most individuals- if asked- would probably agree that, whilst they are both from other dimensions, angels and faeries are of different orders, with very different characters, habits and purposes. All the same, this is not a hard and fast distinction. There are certainly observers who treat the two types of supernatural as very closely related. I wonder if this has been encouraged, at least in part, by the more modern tendency to portray faeries as winged. Angels have been depicted with wings since the early medieval period (at least). Faeries only really gained their wings in popular imagination and art from the late eighteenth century onwards, as I’ve described elsewhere. When our medieval forebears saw a connection, it was based on something other than form, it seems. On this point, it’s worth observing that John Clare’s faeries are very tiny indeed, another marked contrast between the traditional image of the faes and that of angels.
On related issues, I’ve previously discussed two questions which often arise online in discussions about Faery: the position of faeries in the Christian world view and the question whether the faes have some divine purpose within that.