Faery Charms- Magical Deeds and Words

‘I saw the banshee flying, wild in the Wind of March…’ Florence Susan Harrison, 1912

I recently described how we can use a variety of substances and objects as charms against fairies.  In this posting, I look at how some actions and words can have a like effect.

Some of the effective actions will be familiar to readers from wider magical practice.  For example, drawing a circle around yourself- especially if an iron or steel point is used to do this- will guard an individual from a range of harms, including malign fairies  Making the sign of the Christian cross is widely believed to be effective in the same manner as, of course, are Christian prayers or the invocation of holy names, typically the trinity, but also individual saints.

Some actions are less explicable.  For example, there is a very peculiar (and frustratingly incomplete) account recorded in Charles Rogers Social Life in Scotland (1886).  He describes how the fairies abducted the wife of the miller of Menstrie but how, when riddling meal one day at the door of his barn, he stood in a particular stance or posture that had the effect of breaking the spell and recovering his spouse.  Rogers doesn’t expand on this, leaving us desperate for details.

More typically, it was forms of words that were effective against the faes (over and above simply blessing yourself and calling on god).  Volume III of Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica (Gaelic Songs) of 1900 contains a range of spoken charms that offer protection against fairies.  Many of these are addressed to individual saints, including as Brigit, Mary, Michael, Peter, James, John and Columba.  Their assistance is sought either against generalised perils or to help with specific threats.

For example, on waking in the morning you can pray to “Ward off the bane of the fairy women” (these ban sith were plainly seen as a persistent danger, as several prayers are concerned with them); the fairies of the knolls (siodach nan cnoc) are also mentioned.  The sith folk as a whole were seen as especially threatening on Thursdays (when a blessing could be intoned against them) and at the time of death, when a person might prayer to be shielded against the evil of the fairies (bho arrais nan sidh). 

More precisely identified risks include fairy arrows or darts (which are mentioned in several prayers) and the fairy host or sluagh.  One notably vivid prayer to Brigit seeks her blessing to ensure that:

“No seed of the fairy host shall lift me,

Nor seed of airy host shall lift me.”

“Cha tog siodach mi

Cha tog sluagach mi”

As well as people, household items and equipment might be protected, as in this blessing for a loom against gruagachs and fairy women: “Bho gach gruagach is ban-sith.”

William Mackenzie also recorded Gaelic Incantations that he heard on the Hebrides before 1895.  He came across a charm against injuries to the spleen and liver by fairies as well as more comprehensive charms guarding against the ‘nine slender fairies’ (‘s air naoi bean seang sithe) or against a more pervasive malign fairy influence:

“We repudiate their evil tricks,

(May) their back be to us,

May their face be from us,

Through merit of the passion and death of our saviour.”

The Mona Miscellany of 1873 records a very similar incantation from the Isle of Man that was to be said at night to protect a home from fairy incursions:

“The peace of God and the peace of man,

The peace of God on Columb Killey,

On each window and each door,

And on every hole admitting moonlight,

And on the place of my rest

And the peace of God on myself.”

Directly comparable to this is a grace that was recorded from a resident of Skye, Farquhar Beaton, during the 1840s, when he was one hundred years old.  Nightly he prayed for protection for the old and young, wives and children, sheep and cattle against the ‘power and dominion of the fairies’ (o churnhach agus cheannas nan sithichean).  Some might perhaps question the credulity of the people saying such prayers, but as Beaton himself said- “My own two eyes beheld them; my own two ears heard them” (Mo dhu shuil fein a chunnaic iad; mo dha chluas fein a chual iad.)  He’d seen the threat and he was taking no chances…

One thing to bear in mind with all of these charms, I am sure, is the need to repeat them in the exact form in which they have been formulated.  The Isle of Man also supplies a very good example of this, which is to be found in Dora Broome’s Fairy Tales of the Isle of Man.  A man wanted to find a fynoderee to help cure his sickly cow and his wife told him a charm to repeat to lure one out of a tree and into his power:

“Fynoderee, fynoderee

Come down, for I can see.”

The being would then follow the husband anywhere, but she warned him to cross himself three times immediately afterwards, for fear of butcheragh (witchcraft, or bad magic).  Of course, the husband forgot the gesture to go with the words, and bad luck followed: his cow recovered, but it then disappeared along with the fynoderee- and all the other animals and birds living on the farm.

A fynoderee, after Brian Froud

For more on protections against faeries, see my Darker Side of Faery (2021). My Manx Faeries examines the fynoderee and other beings from the Isle of Man in more detail.

“Let me grab your soul away”- faeries, souls and the dead

fitzgerald Fairy_passage

John Anster Fitzgerald, Fairy passage

Fairies and the dead have always had some ill-defined relationship, but in an account of folk beliefs in North East Scotland, I came across this fascinating note:

“It is said that, if a person dies of consumption, the fairies steal the soul from the body and animate another person with it.” (Shaw, The history of the province of Moray, 1827, p.278)

In the far north of Scotland, fairy abductions of humans can include not just a physical kidnapping but the abstraction of a person’s vital essence, leaving an inanimate stock behind: their soul is in Faery and a lifeless shell remains.  Related to this may be the Shetland belief that trows can only appear in human form if they can find someone who’s not been protected by a ‘saining’ or blessing. There is one story in which two trows attend a Yule dance in the form of two small boys whose mother had forgotten to bless them before she went out for the night’s festivities.  When they were exposed for what they were, the trows vanished from the dance, but the boys didn’t return to their beds.  They were found the next day dead in a deep snowdrift.  Fairy ‘possession’ can lead to real or simulated death, then, as well as following on from it.

Virtuous Pagans?

This particular Scottish manifestation is unique, but the idea that fairies (or, at least, some of them) have an association with the souls of the dead is widespread in the British Isles.  It has been speculated that the pixies of the south-west might be the souls of unbaptised children, or those delivered stillborn, or perhaps the spirits of virtuous druids and other non-Christians.  The mine sprites (the ‘knockers’ in the South West) were the souls of ancient miners and there are traces of a belief that bees and moths were spirits in some form.  In Wales as well the tylwyth teg were thought to be the spirits of virtuous druids who had died in pre-Christian times, whilst on the Isle of Man the belief was that the fairies represented the souls of those who died before the Flood (see Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, pp.183, 169, 179, 177, 178, 147 & 123).

Faery Dogs

In Yorkshire, the supernatural hounds called the Gabriel Ratchets were believed to be the form taken by infants who died before baptism; they would circle their parents home overhead at night.  Other ‘faery beasts’ such as the black dogs, shugs and shocks were regarded as portents of death in the counties where they were seen.  The Welsh equivalent of these hounds, called the Cwn Annwn (roughly, the hounds of hell) were ban dogs employed for the pursuit of the souls of those who had died either unbaptised or unshriven.

Faery Limbo

Certain people- those who died early, unexpectedly or by violence- would go to live with the fairies in a sort of limbo.  This is a concept found across Britain in folklore, ballad and poetry from at least the Middle Ages.  Sir Walter Scott used it in his ballad ‘Alice Brand’ which is incorporated into his novel The Lady of the Lake.  Alice and her lover Richard are hiding in the greenwood; the Elfin King hears them cutting his trees and sends a goblin to chastise them:

“Up, Urgan, up! to yon mortal hie,

 For thou wert christen’d man:

For cross or sign thou wilt not fly,

 For mutter’d word or ban.”

When the goblin finds the pair, Alice confronts him and asks how he fell under the king’s power.  He replies:

“It was between the night and day,

 When the Fairy King has power,

That I sunk down in a sinful fray,

And ’twixt life and death, was snatch’d away

To the joyless Elfin bower.”

Alice is then able to release from this captive state by making the sign of the cross three times.

Witches’ Faery Helpers

What appeared so frequently in verse and story merely reflected genuine folk belief, as is confirmed by the evidence given by several Scottish witchcraft suspects.  For example, Alison Peirson told her inquisitors that several deceased members of her family were to be found in the court of Elphame, including her uncle William Simpson; Andro Man claimed that he knew “sindrie dead men in thair cumpanie” (one of whom was the late King James IV, who had died at the Battle of Flodden).  Bessy Dunlop revealed that the laird of Auchenreath, who had died nine years previously, was to be seen amongst the fairy rade whilst her particular ‘familiar,’ a man called Thom Reid, had fallen at the battle of Pinkie some 29 years earlier.  Elspeth Reoch’s fairy intermediary was a relative called John Stewart, who had been murdered at sunset- a violent and early death at a liminal time of day.

Lewis Spence examines some of the thought behind these folklore traditions in his classic British Fairy Origins.  The soul is often conceived as a small person and it is easy to understand how the little folk and the spirit homunculus might become confused.  Walter Evans-Wentz, in The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, also espoused the theory that (some at least of) the fairies are the souls of the dead, something which he set within a wider Celtic ‘Legend of the Dead.’  He said that:

“the striking likenesses constantly appearing in our evidence between the ordinary apparitional fairies and the ghosts of the dead show that there is often no essential and sometimes no distinguishable difference between these two orders of beings, nor between the world of the dead and fairyland.” (Spence pp.68, 70 & 80; Evans Wentz pp.280 & 493)

The Reverend Robert Kirk in the Secret Commonwealth goes so far as to argue that, whilst the bodies of the dead lie in their graves in the churchyard, their souls inhabit the fairy knowes that are so often found in proximity to Highland churches.  He confirmed that fairies were, therefore, believed by some with the second sight to be “departed souls, attending awhile in this inferior state, and clothed with Bodies procured through their Almsdeeds in this Lyfe… but if any were so impious as to have given no Alms, they say when the Souls of such do depart, they sleep in an unactive state till they resume the terrestrial Bodies again.”  Other seers believed that the souls of the dying people became wraiths, and the apparitions of black dogs which I mentioned earlier, and yet others were convinced that the fairies were “a numerous People by themselves, having their own polities.”  He mentioned too other beliefs that people’s “Souls goe to the Sith when dislodged” and that some will “go to the Siths (or People at Rest, and in respect of us, in Peace) before the natural Period of their Lyfe expire…”  These ideas seem very clearly to be identical with the idea that those murdered or otherwise killed violently end up in faery.  Seventeenth century Scottish opinion on the nature of fairykind was divided then, but it was apparently as common to see them as some manifestation of human dead as it was to consider them to be a separate form of life.

Poet Robert Sempill put these ideas into verse, describing how one suspected witch:

“names our nyboris sex or sewin, (6 or 7)

That we belevit had bene in heawin.”

Floatiness- movement of fay people?

IRO f with bunnies

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, Fairy with bunnies and flower skipping rope

“Oh, band of mischievous fairies,/ That flicker and float about;”

(Old Donald, Menella Bute Smedley)

As many readers will know very well indeed, the Irish and Scottish Gaelic name for the fairies is sidh.  One of the derivations of this term is from the word for ‘peace.’  Translations of the name therefore give us ‘the People of Peace,’ the ‘still folk’ or ‘the silently moving folk.’  One interpretation of ‘peace’ is that it is a euphemistic name– an expression of hope as much as a description, a form of wish or charm that the fays will be peaceful in their conduct and leave us mortals in peace, just as use of the ‘Good Neighbours’ aspires to a state of amity between supernaturals and humans.

Silent movement

I want in this post to discuss the other understanding of the phrase- the suggestion that the ‘peace’ in question is not an absence of conflict (either with humans or between the fairies themselves) but is descriptive of the manner of their movement.

“And in the fields of martial Cambria…/ Where light foot fairies skip from bank to bank.”  (The tragedy of Locrine, 1594, attributed to Shakespeare)

Now, just how fairies might get about is generally take for granted and seldom remarked upon.  We assume that they’ll walk, that they might ride their own faery horses or that they might fly with those pretty butterfly and dragonfly wings that they’ve so recently acquired.  Perhaps rather more often than fluttering, fairies are taken to ‘teleport’ from one spot to another: witness Ariel in The Tempest, putting a girdle about the earth in forty minutes.

iro yellow fay

Movement through the air is particularly likely to be soundless, which may indeed explain the ‘people of peace’ epithet.  John Gregorson Campbell believed that this was entirely appropriate in the circumstances:

“Sound is a natural adjunct of the motions of men, and its entire absence is unearthly, unnatural, not human.  The name sith without doubt refers to ‘peace’ or silence of Airy motion, as contrasted to the stir and noise accompanying the movements and actions of men.  The German ‘still folk’ is a name of corresponding import… They seem to glide or float along, rather than to walk.” (Superstitions of the Highlands and islands p.4).

Campbell compared the sound of the fairies’ movement to a rustling noise, like that of a gust of winds, or a silk gown, or a sword drawn sharply through the air.

“In they swept with a rustling sound/ Like dead leaves blown together.”

The fairies’ cobbler, Rosamond M. Watson

The soundlessness of fairy movement seems to be confirmed by an account collected by Welsh minister Edmund Jones.  A girl of Trefethin parish told him how she had come across some fairies dancing under a crab tree.  Regularly for three or four years after that time, either when she was going to or coming home from school, she would meet with them to dance in a barn.  She recalled that they wore green and blue aprons, were of small stature and looked “oldish.” Most notable, though, was she never heard their feet whilst she was dancing with them; she took off her own shoes too to make no noise as it seemed displeasing to them.

Skipping and speeding

Other authorities believe that fairy motion was typified by its great speed, which is achieved without perceptible effort.  The fays’ hands and feet may move so fast that they aren’t visible and they seem to glide through the air without touching the ground.  A man who met some Scottish fairies on Halloween described to poet James Hogg how “their motions were so quick and momentary he could not well say what they were doing.”  Supporting this, an account of Broonie the trow king from Orkney describes him as ‘gliding’ from farmstead to farmstead.  Nonetheless, another witness reported how she saw a trow getting about by skipping- backwards (County folklore, vol.3 ,Shetland and Orkney).

iro the acrobats

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, The acrobats

Swimming in the air

Is there anything else distinctive about fairy motion that can be gleaned from the sources?

There are a few intriguing mentions of unusual or characteristic movement.  In The secret commonwealth the Reverend Robert Kirk describes how, with their bodies of “congealled Air” the sidh folk are “some tymes caried aloft” and that they “swim in the Air near the Earth” (c.1).  Welsh Rev. Edmund Jones relates how Edmund Daniel of Arail saw fairies at Cefn Bach: they were “leaping and striking the air” in an undulating motion (The appearance of evil no.59).  Lastly, a nineteenth century Yorkshire account describes the fays as being seen, early on summer mornings, in “rapid, confused motion.”  These latter descriptions are so individual and unique as to lend them considerable authenticity.

Catch us if you can

The same man who told James Hogg about the fairies on Halloween also had another supernatural experience, when he saw a crowd of fays travelling up Glen Entertrony.  At first he thought they were neighbours returning from the fair and tried to catch up with them to get the latest news.  Although they were only twenty paces ahead of him, and he was running, he was never able to reach them- and all the time they seemed to him to be standing still in a circle.  This puts me in mind of an incident from the Mabinogion.  In the story of Pwyll, Lord of Dyfed, Pwyll is seated on top of a fairy hill when he sees fairy princess Rhiannon riding past.  He tries to pursue her, but can never catch her up however hard he spurs his horse.

In the Scottish Highlands it is also believed that, when ‘the folk’ move about in groups, they travel in eddies of wind.  In Gaelic such an eddy is known as `the people’s puff of wind’ (oiteag sluaigh) and its motion ‘travelling on tall grass stems’ (falbh air chuiseagan treorach).  John Rhys recorded in Celtic folklore that the Welsh tylwyth teg were said to dance on the tops of rushes, again suggestive of a light and floating motion.

Whilst we’re talking about fairy movement, it may be worth mentioning here a curious observation by Alasdair Alpin MacGregor in his folk lore guide, The peat fire flame.  He records the Highlands belief that fairies always approach from the West.  My guess is that this is the direction associated with sunset and so, by extension, with death, and that it reflects the association of fairies with the dead, even if they are not ghosts or the dead themselves.

Conclusions

What can we conclude from this brief survey of allusive hints?  The best we can probably say is that one way that fairies might be identified is by their particular gliding, floating movements.

I examine other evidence on other means of locomotion in two other posts, one on fairies whirling and one on ‘Horse and Hattock.’

IRO Dragonfly fairy