John Anster Fitzgerald, The fairy’s funeral
We are very familiar with fairies’ magical powers of creating glamour and, to a lesser extent, of shape-shifting, but they also have more oracular or psychic abilities. They can detect lost or hidden items and they have the ability to see into the future and, if they wish, to make this knowledge known to humans. For example, the Brownie of Castle Lachlan of Stralachan in Argyllshire was known for his prophetic powers. The Welsh fairy king, Gwyn ap Nudd, was said in the Welsh Triads to have great knowledge about the nature and qualities of the stars and could predict the future from them.
There are several ways in which prognostications might be revealed to humankind.
Actions disclose fate to clan or village
Firstly, the foreknowledge might be disclosed to a family, a household or a community by the fairy’s actions. For instance, the glaistig of Island House on Tiree, was known to begin to work extra hard in advance of the arrival of unexpected visitors. This additional effort alerted the household to advent of likely guests.
Another example of this kind of warning comes from those fays whose actions would foretell a death or tragedy. The Scottish banshee and the related caointeach (keener) and bean-nighe are well known for this well known for this. By their howls, or by washing winding sheets in rivers, they signify imminent death, but they are not alone. The Ell Maid of Dunstaffnage Castle would cry out to warn of impending joy, or woe; on the Borders the powrie or dunter haunted old peel towers and made a noise like the pounding of flax or grain. When this was louder than usual, or went on for longer, it was a sure sign of coming death or misfortune.
In South Wales the Reverend Edmund Jones reported related activities. A man in a field in Carmarthenshire saw a fairy funeral procession pass by, singing psalms. Soon afterwards a human funeral followed exactly the same route in the same manner. At Aberystruth in about 1770 two men mowing in a field saw a marriage company processing by; another man passing at the same time saw nothing even though he was actually seen to meet with the wedding party. The event turned out to presage the death of the third man’s employer and the marriage of his daughter.
Brain Froud, The bean-nighe
Actions reveal to individuals
Elsewhere the Reverend Jones wrote that the fairies “infallibly knew when a person was going to die.” It follows from this that sometimes, rather than a general warning of a coming death, the fairies would appear to the victim him or herself. Jones gives examples of this. A man was travelling near Abertillery when he heard people talking. He paused to listen, then heard the sound of a tree falling and a moan. It soon transpired that what he had witnessed was the fairies predicting his own death by a fall from a tree. In a very similar account, Jones described a young man at Hafod-y-dafel who saw a procession headed for the church. Walking with the fairies were a child and a young adult male who suddenly vanished. This proved to be a premonition: first the witness’ child fell ill and died; then he too sickened and passed away.
A very similar story is told in Lancashire. Two men encountered a fairy funeral taking place at the church of St Mary near Penwortham Wood. The fays were dressed in black and carrying a tiny coffin containing a doll like corpse which looked exactly like one of the two witnesses. This man reached out to try to touch one of the mourners, causing the apparition instantly to vanish. Within a month, he fell from a haystack and was killed.
As well as predicting individuals’ deaths, the fays could more happily disclose their future spouses to them. The best example of this is the Borders brownie called Kilmoulis. This being lived in mills by the grain kilns; on Halloween they would foretell love. If a person threw a ball of thread into a pot and then started to rewind it into another ball, a point would come near the end of the yarn when Kilmoulis would hold on and stop the winding. If you then asked “who holds?”, the brownie would name your spouse to be. In East Yorkshire, some ‘fairy stones’ stood near Burdale (near Malton) and it was said that if a person visited these during the full moon, they would glimpse their future partner.
It seems that, living in two dimensions, the fairies have access to knowledge that is unavailable to mortals. They can see through the material world and through time as it’s perceived by us to bring us knowledge we might not wish to acquire.
An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.