Estella Canziani, Fairies bless the newborn child.
There is an identifiable strand of thought about modern fairies that wishes to see them as part of a wider divine plan. I wrote a little while ago about the ideas of Paracelsus on fairies and I think his insistence upon his elementals being part of God’s creation and allotted a purpose within the universe have been a major contributor to this ‘mission from god’ idea.
This is quite a turn-around, because formerly, as I described in my jottings on fairy religion, the Christian church had spent most of its history attacking fairies and condemning fairy belief. Fairies were demons or, at the very best, delusions sent by the devil to lead us astray. This had always been the orthodox belief of the Catholic church and, after the Reformation, the position was expressed with renewed vigour and venom by Protestant preachers. Quite unfairly, post-Lutheran polemicists made out that one of the many superstitions fostered by Rome was the existence of fairies.
As these beings were nothing more or less than servants of Satan, there could be never be any accommodation with them and the Christian church was directly opposed to them. This is very clearly shown in a story from Borgue in Kirkcudbright: a boy started to disappear for days at a time and it was realised that he was visiting the fairies underground. To protect the child, he was taken to a local priest and was given a large crucifix to wear on a black ribbon around his neck (although, this being dour, Protestant Scotland, the local kirk then expelled the family for such Papist goings on).
Over the intervening centuries, there have been attempts to find some sort of accommodation between fairies and the Biblical view of the universe. In A discourse concerning the nature and substance of devils and spirits, which was appended to the 1665 edition of Reginald Scot’s The discoverie of witchcraft, one of several such arguments was set out:
“God made the Fairies, Bugs, Incubus, Robin Goodfellow and other familiar domestical spirits and Devils on the Friday and, being prevented with the evening of the Sabbath, finished them not, but left them unperfect, and therefore ever since they use to flie the holiness of the Sabbath, seeking dark holes in Mountains and Woods, wherein they hide themselves til the end of the Sabbath and then come abroad to trouble and molest men.” (Book I c.XI)
This passage is an excellent compromise between divine omnipotence and the need to explain these anomalous spirits- not quite demons, not quite angels. We may compare the belief in Cornwall that the local pixies were either the souls of still-born children or of newborn babies who died before they could be baptised.
Despite these conflicting theories, the fairies’ position is clear in one sense: they are not godly beings and, as such, are averse to all things Christian. This was very widely reflected in popular belief, in which a sure charm against fairy harm was anything in the least related to religion- whether it was the sign of the cross, the use of blessings or, even, the deployment of pages torn from a Bible or a prayer book as defence against elf attack. Any item or turn of phrase with Christian connotations came to be seen as protection against fairy powers: for example, in William Bottrell’s story of An’ Pee Tregear, the old woman sees pixies threshing in a barn. She hears a pixie sneeze and instinctively says ‘bless you’- causing them all to disappear (Traditions and hearthside stories, vol.2 p.154).
Hester Margetson, Bluebell in fairyland.
Fays and angels
You wouldn’t necessarily know today that any of this very marked antipathy ever existed between mainstream Christianity and a belief in fairies. For example, Doreen Virtue in Fairies 101 (2007) describes the fays as “God’s creatures with important missions” and as “angels who reside close to earth.” In her Healing with fairies of 2001 she claims them as sparks of the divine light, part of God’s wondrous creation. Their role is as guides and helpers to humans and as guardians of nature.
Other contemporary writers take a pagan approach, but still infuse their descriptions with a sacred vocabulary. Alicen and Neil Geddes-Ward derive their Faeriecraft from modern Wicca and refer to the “sacred nature” of the fairies, with whom we can build a “divine relationship.” Sirona Knight and Deanna Conway both associate the fairies with the God and Goddess; Rae Beth refers to the Great Mother.
Particularly in the accommodation of fairies with Christian belief, the danger seems to me to be to subordinate them to whatever divine purpose is perceived by the author and to reduce or eliminate the free will and the individuality of the fairies themselves. Once they have their mission from God, they can lose their own motivations and agenda and come to be viewed solely through their relationship to us and to their holy duty. Much as with the reconstitution of fairies as nature spirits and elementals, devoted to saving the planet, I think there’s a lot of projection of our own concerns and needs onto them and too little regard for the evidence of tradition.
In her 2017 book Fairies Morgan Daimler states in no uncertain terms that the fairies
“have never cared about the things we do to the world around us so long as we leave their places alone.”
This encapsulates the traditional fairies’ selfishness perfectly: they are protective of their favoured spots- but that’s all. Morgan also points out that the faes can always go back to the otherworld in any case (Fairies, pp.4 & 174). She’s quite right; it might be nice to personify nature in order to give ourselves a bit of extra impetus to clear up the mess we’ve made, but the fairies and elves of folklore would probably take the view that it’s nothing to do with them. We wrecked the place, so we should put it right- and, meanwhile, they’ve got better things to do. This may sound harsh and unfeeling, but a lot of the British fairies are just that: they steal property, they kidnap children, they torment adults, they kill livestock and people.
Reading the posts I’ve made on this blog or reading any of the accounts contained in the folklore sources that I’ve depended upon, it is hard honestly to see anything about the national fairies that could entitle them to be seen as “divine sparks.” Often, albeit for different reasons, you feel that the medieval and Reformation church men had made a better assessment. Faerie can be mercenary and it can be cruel and its denizens can appear devoid of any hint of holy fervour. A Victorian author said that the Devonshire pixies “had no religious rites or services.” Most others similarly lacked any discernible faith or ceremonies. How and when did the fairies get religion?
Pixies and Paradise?
Paracelsus sowed the seed, but I think it was only in the wake of Theosophy that we became convinced that the fays had to be part of a bigger plan. For example, Manly P. Hall (1901-90) and the Reverend Flower A. Newhouse (1909-94) both wrote extensively on the angelic and fairy hierarchies. Newhouse called the fairies ‘frakins’ and saw them as a lower order of earth elemental, responsible for flowering plants and grasses. Above them were sylphs, gnomes and elves, leading successively to the angels. Her books include Natives of eternity (1937), The kingdom of the shining ones (1955) and Rediscovering angels and natives (1966), the titles all being suggestive of her general approach.
Daphne Charters was author of The origin, life and evolution of fairies (1951) and A true fairy tale (1956). She claimed to have daily conversations with the small workforce of fairies resident in her home and garden. She saw the entire natural and human world as being run by these industrious creatures, beings who ‘covered every inch’ of the visible and invisible universe. In many ways Charters’ theories built upon those of Geoffrey Hodson (as in his book The kingdom of God) , but she disagreed with his views in two ways. Firstly, his belief was the fairies could not speak, whereas she was in constant, chatty dialogue with her good neighbours. Secondly, her vision of a hierarchy of nature spirits was far more systematic and orderly than Hodson’s. Charters discovered a scale of being from the microscopic, simple and short-lived rudines all the way up to God. The intermediate stages included gnomes, elves and fairies, each longer-lived, larger and more mentally developed that the other.
Iris Ratsey was another Christian medium and mystic. Her little 1966 book, Pioneering in conscious and co-operative mediumship, is a strange mix of prayers, meditations and visions. From an early age she had regularly seen fairies and, in the text, she describes a visit to “higher dimensional territory” where she witnessed the “sub-human or etheric nature species” responsible for the growth of wheat seeds and describes their ecstatic life cycle. Ratsey stated that her visions of tiny elfin creatures gave her “a sense of divine presence” explicitly linking her contact with Faery with religious experience.
What do the fairies want?
Fairies have been promoted in recent decades into a force for good. They are seen as having a role assisting us with our moral and/or spiritual development and are appealed to and worked with on this basis by several faery faiths. My caution with this depiction of the fairy race is that it is very hard to square it with the traditional sources. An honest assessment of those would be that the fairy race is, at best, amoral (and at worst immoral) in the sense that faes can be cruel, selfish and demonstrate little respect for property. There is very little ‘divine’ about them. They don’t want our prayers; they aren’t interested in petitioners; they are a separate race living in parallel to humans whose good will can’t be bought. What they want from us is tribute, not worship; they’re interested in taxes or booty rather than sacrifice.
In many respects, the fairy attitude to human beings as delineated in the folklore accounts is one akin to a colonial or conquering state, which seeks to derive income and resources from a tributary people. This fits very well with the fairies’ practices of abducting adults and children, of stealing food products and food sources and their general possessiveness in respect of human property. This may seem harsh- yet it encapsulates some of the core dynamics of our relationship. In light of this, it is harder to recast the fay character as benevolent and non-materialist, as some modern conceptions wish to do.