A Fae’s Anatomy

I’m delighted to say that Green Magic has recently published my examination of the Faery Lifecycle, a birth to death study of the physiology and anatomy of fairy-kind. In this post, I want to add a few additional examples to those that I included in the text.

All aspects of faery biology and health are examined in the new book, so here are a few examples of the issues that I’ve examined.

Height: much of our folklore evidence indicates that faeries are, normally, about the height of human children. For example, in Lanbestan parish, Wales in 1902 it was reported that snow was found marked by a dance of the tylwyth teg– “as if formed by hundreds of children in little pump shoes.”

Plentiful other evidence confirms this junior stature: seven or eight faeries dressed in green who were seen on Jura were estimated to be about three feet high; on Islay about twenty unknown children dressed in green were seen playing on a hill by some kids going home. They did not know who the strangers were and it was assumed that could only have been sith. On the Shetland island of Yell “peerie” (tiny) men the size of dolls were seen dancing on the tips of docks and reeds.

Physique– in build and form, the faeries are generally believed to be exactly like us, but there are occasional exceptions to this, such as the statement by Scottish witch suspect Janet Boyman that she had once seen a faery man near an “elrich well” who looked fine from the front, but who from the rear was “wasted like a stick.” The Danish elle maids are also said to be strangely hollow at the back.

Disability amongst faes is not unknown, as with Oberon, king of the fairies in the romance Huon of Bordeaux. This powerful monarch is “of height but three fote and crokyd shulderyd.” At a very much later date, Hugh Miller described the last faeries seen in northern Scotland as being “stunted, misgrown, ugly creatures with unkempt locks.”

The faeries’ status as physical or spiritual beings has remained uncertain for centuries. John Gregorson Campbell, in Superstitions of the Highlands, describes them as “the counterparts of mankind, but substantial and unreal, outwardly invisible.” I’ve added the emphasis to stress their paradoxical nature.

Sex and children: there has long been a debate about whether or not faeries can reproduce- whether, indeed, they have a physical body capable of any such contact. I have described before long-term sexual relationships between humans and faeries, something which seems decisively to settle these doubts, but there are still those who assert that faeries have no need to breed, being immortal, and- in fact- cannot do so. I have already described many cases in which faeries have indeed been killed deliberately or accidentally; their life spans seem to be very long, but not eternal.

All in all, they seem to be very much like us- with one problematic exception. Campbell reports that faery women cannot breast feed their own children, which is why they will so often abduct women recently delivered of babies as wet nurses or, at the very least, will beg for a feed for their babies from a breast feeding mother.

Cleanliness and health: I have examined this issue in a previous post, but we know for certain that the faes keep themselves clean by bathing themselves and by washing their clothes- as was the case in a cave near Llanymynech in Wales.

Faery diet: in Wales, the tylwyth teg are said to subsist upon fruit, flowers, nuts, honey and cream. The latter is left for them by humans, the rest they can forage for themselves in the countryside- fresh and organic. The faeries are so much like us that they enjoy alcohol too- and have even been discovered by humans in a state of intoxication.

Illness & cures: for all their healthy diet and care over cleanliness, the faes can get sick and, in response, they have developed a considerable knowledge of the healing properties of many wild plants. Such is the faeries knowledge that humans have been known frequently to try to steal their knowledge or their actual medicines. Campbell tells the story of ‘Callum Clerk and his sore leg.’ Clark was a bully and nuisance in his community:

“Some six generations ago there lived in Port Bhissta, on Tiree, a dark, fierce man, known as Big Malcolm Clark (Callum mor mac-a-Cheirich). He was a very strong man, and in his brutal violence produced the death of several people… When sharpening knives, old women in Tiree said, “Friday in Clark’s town” (Di-haoine am baile mhic-a-Chleirich), with the object of making him and his the objects of fairy wrath. One evening, as he was driving a tether-pin into a hillock, a head was popped up out of the ground, and told him to take some other place for securing his beast, as he was letting the rain into `their’ dwelling. Some time after this he had a painfully sore leg. He went to the shi-en, where the head had appeared, and, finding it open, entered in search of a cure for his leg. The fairies told him to put `earth on the earth.’ He applied every kind of earth he could think of to the leg, but without effect. At the end of three months, he went again to the hillock, and when entering put steel in the door. He was told to go out, but he would not, nor would he withdraw the steel till told the proper remedy. At last, he was told to apply the red clay of a small loch in the neighbourhood (criadh ruadh lochan ni’h fhonhairle). He did so, and the leg was cured.”

This knowledge could be extorted from the faeries, or it might be granted willingly. Alleged witch Alison Pearson saw the elves making their ointments in pans on the fire and was taught to make the same cures by them- as a poem quoted by Sir Walter Scott in Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders shows:

“For ony herb scho likes to luke;
It will instruct her how to tak it,
In saws and sillubs how to mak it;
With stones that meikle mair can doe,
In leich craft, where scho lays them toe:
A thousand maladeis scho hes mendit;”

Cornish servant Anne Jeffries was another such beneficiary for, as Scott described:

“[Anne’s mistress] accidentally hurt her leg, and, at her return, Anne cured it, by stroking it with her hand. She appeared to be informed of every particular, and asserted, that she had this information from the fairies, who had caused the misfortune. After this, she performed numerous cures, but would never receive money for them… She had always a sufficient stock of salves and medicines, and yet neither made, nor purchased any; nor did she ever appear to be in want of money… The report of the strange cures which she performed, soon attracted the attention of both ministers and magistrates. The ministers endeavoured to persuade her, that the fairies by which she was haunted, were evil spirits, and that she was under the delusion of the devil.”

The reaction of her community- and outcome- is typical of the period (the mid seventeenth century).

What may be apparent is that we are able to speak with some clarity on virtually all aspects of the physiology and anatomy of the faery folk. There are a few areas of debate, although even in these the balance of the evidence we have from folklore tends to favour one view of other pretty definitely. This means that we can confidently describe the faery lifecycle from birth to death and so more fully understand how our Good Neighbours work.

Goblin market- the fairy economy



Goblin market, Arthur Rackham

“Come buy our orchard fruits,

Come buy, come buy.”

Goblin market, Christina Rossetti.

Faery was imagined in many respects as mirroring human society: brownies undertook house work, farm labour and other domestic chores like spinning and sewing, whilst the ‘trooping fairies’ and pixies had their own king and queen, a royal court, dances and hunts.  These parallels extended to frequenting fairs and markets.

Fairy theft

On one hand, this mirroring of human commerce seems incongruous: one notorious fairy trait was to steal human food products (or, at least) the nourishment within them.  In his Secret commonwealth Robert Kirk described how the fairies fed on “the Foyson or substance of Corns and Liquors or corn itself that grows on the Surface of the Earth” (s.2).  As a result, he said, “When we have plenty, they have Scarcity at their Homes” meaning that “We then … do labour for that abstruse People, as weill as for ourselves” (s.3).  Milk from which the goodness has been extracted floats like a cork on water, he alleged.

The fairies stole these products by a variety of methods:

  • in a hazel switch (for milk);
  • by stealthy theft- corn, Kirk said, “these Fairies steal away, partly invisible, partly preying on the Grain as do Crowes and Mice.”
  • by ropes- “What Food they extract from us is conveyed to their Homes by Secret Paths, as sume skilfull Women do the Pith and Milk from their Neighbours Cows into their own Cheife-hold thorow a Hair-tedder, at a great distance, by Airt Magic…;”
  • by leaving a stock in place of a stolen cow (as in the story The Tacksman of Auchriachan) or by leaving an old man rolled in a cow skin; and,
  • by thieving from market stalls.  The fairies are sometimes encountered in a market place, invisible to all but the person who has touched fairy ointment on an eye and who thereby is no longer fooled by fairy glamour.  The punishment for observing the fairies at work is loss of sight in the eye effected.

Fairy trade

Nonetheless, fairies are also said to indulge in labour and trade just like humans.  One Welsh tale reports them mining and undertaking farming tasks such as mowing and herding, just like their human neighbours. They build extensively and they manufacture cloth.  These are just other instances of the close parallels between our society and theirs.

Fairies participated enthusiastically in commerce.  The famous fair on the Blackdown Hills featured pewterers, pedlars and fruit and ale sellers (Keightley, Fairy mythology pp.294-5).  Another well-known fair was held by the pixies near Breage in Cornwall (Wentz Fairy faith in Celtic countries p.171). Kirk also states that the industrious sidh women spin, dye, weave and embroider and that they bake bread and strike hammers in their hills. John Rhys in Celtic folklore records fairies attending markets and fairs all over Wales and paying good prices for the wares (though sometimes they are spotted stealing, too).  He also noted the skill of fairies in spinning, weaving, mining and cobbling.  Wirt Sikes in British Goblins (pp.9 and 10) likewise recorded that the fairy folk living on islands off the Pembroke and Carmarthen coast (the Plant Rhys Dwfn) regularly visited the markets at Laugharne and Milford Haven, at which they always paid the exact price and never spoke to the stall holders.  An informant providing evidence to John Rhys observed that the fairies’ chatter at night always peaked when the prices were high at Llangefni market (Wentz p.139).

Fairy gold

Some folk tales certainly indicate that fairies possess their own independent wealth, in the form of gold, silver and cattle, though it must be conceded that this may originally have been stolen from humans, as pilfering was consistently reported to be a key element in the elvish economy (Wentz pp.106. 144, 147 & 151).  An odd account from Wales records the fairly common practice of fairies leaving gold in return for a water left out by humans- except in this case the coins were said to be of unknown provenance, not British currency but unfamiliar pieces marked with a harp on one side (John Rhys, Celtic folklore p.6).

Apparently, if one is polite and respectful, it is even possible for humans to trade with the fairies at their own markets. Ruth Tongue heard such an account in Somerset, the most interesting aspect of which is that change given in dry leaves became gold and silver at home the next day- contrary to the normal nature of fairy ‘gold’ (County folklore- Somerset, vol.8, p.112).  This amenability to a human presence is rare though- normally the intrusion is resented.

Fairy dependence

Despite all this evidence of a separate fairy economy, there was also a constant theme in folklore of the fair folk being to some degree dependent upon humans for the provision of basic items.  Frequently, they might rely upon people to provide them with heated water for bathing; they also seemed to lack various basic domestic items and skills to satisfy which they had to resort to human aid.  For example a broken plough or baking ‘peel’ would have to be repaired by a man and the fairies regularly borrowed kitchen gear from their mortal neighbours.  Recompense in the form of food was generally made (Rhys pp.63, 220, 221, 227, 228, 229 & 241).


Finally, in Rossetti’s imagining the market was used as a way of luring in innocent humans and as such is another version of the abduction theme in fairy lore. It is however anomalous to the tradition of fairy markets, though, and in truth Goblin market is a product of literature rather than folk imagination.  In the poem, Jeanie had tasted the goblins’ fruits and “pined and pined away/ Sought them by night and day,/ Found them no more but dwindled and grew grey.”


In summary, one’s assessment of the balance of the faery economy between booty and barter in large measure will depend upon whether or not you regard them as primarily malign or benign.  A detailed discussion of the fairy temperament will be reserved for a later post.  For earlier generations, it will be obvious that the concept of thieving fairies provided a ready explanation of poor harvests, declining yields and lost or mislaid items.  Our ‘good neighbours’, meanwhile, might be expected to prefer pilfering to purchasing as it involved a great deal less effort to live on the fruits of others’ labours; moreover, they were considerably aided in their larceny by their ability to disappear.  One final consideration obtrudes itself: according to John Rhys (Celtic folklore c.VII) fairies can only count to five, the total fingers on one hand.  This greatly limited their numerical skills, plainly, and might incline one more to the belief that theft would be preferred to honest trade…

An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017); for an extended and far more detailed discussion, see my 2021 book How Things Work in Faery.  See too my posting on Cakes and cream on the fairy diet and my separate discussions of faery money and faery treasure.