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.

‘Genii loci’- fairies as spirits of place

Irina Sushelnitskaya
Irina Sushelnitskaya

No-one wants to see their home interfered with and no-one wants to damage a fairy’s house.  Unfortunately, given their habit of living under hills or even directly beneath human dwellings, the faeries are in a situation where their properties may be unwittingly damaged.  The problem for the human who does this is that the consequences might be serious.

Farmers, leave those knolls alone

For example, men building a new house on the Scottish island of Tiree took a stone from a nearby sithean or fairy hill.  They had ample warning to desist as the stone kept returning to the spot where they had found it- but they kept removing it again.  Eventually, one of the builders fell ill, at which point they realised their error, reburied the stone and gave up.

A comparable incident is reported from County Durham in northern England.  Soil was being dug from an old motte and bailey castle near Bishopton when a voice was heard to ask- “Is all well?”  The excavators confirmed that it was, to which the voice replied “Then keep well when you’re well and leave the Fairy Hill alone.”  This seems as unambiguous a warning as you could want- but in this case the men carried on digging regardless. Surprisingly, perhaps, they found a buried chest which, upon opening, was found to contain nothing but nails.  No disaster followed in this case, but perhaps there might have been gold or other treasure unearthed had they paid more attention to the fairy words.

The Durham men seem to have been very lucky when other examples are considered.  An Orkney farmer who dug into a fairy mound was confronted by a little grey man who angrily told him that, if he took another spadeful, six of his cows would die and, if he still persisted, there would be six funerals in the family.  The man went on- with predictable results.  In a comparable incident from Perthshire, three men set out to strip turf from the top of a fairy hill.  When they got there, they all felt suddenly exhausted and lay down for a nap.  On awakening later, each had been carried off some distance from the knoll, one finding himself a quarter of a mile away in a pool.  In Sutherland, a mill was destroyed and the miller chased off by the fairies because he had taken earth to construct the mill dam from a nearby knoll.

Fairy knolls really ought to be obvious places to avoid: in an incident I’ve mentioned before, a man who hammered a peg into a knoll to tether a horse was met with complaints from inside that he had made a hole that was letting the rain in.  He wisely and immediately agreed to tether his animal elsewhere.

chabas jeune naiade
Paul Chabas, Jeune Naiade

Subterranean Neighbours

Sometimes, rather than being under a prominent hill, the fairy dwelling will be found directly beneath your own.  John Rhys tells a tale of a Gwynedd farmer who used to go outside his house to relieve himself every night before bed.  One evening, a stranger appeared beside him complaining about his annoying behaviour. The farmer asked how he could be upsetting a man he’d never seen before, to which the stranger replied that his house was just below where they stood and, if the farmer placed his foot on the stranger’s, he would see this. The farmer complied and saw clearly that all the slops from his house went down the chimney of the other’s home, which stood far below in a street he’d never seen before. The fairy advised him to put his door in the other side of the house and that, if he did so, his cattle would never suffer from disease. The farmer obeyed and after that time he became prosperous man.  There are several versions of stories like this: in one, the grateful fairy later saves the householder’s life.

This proximity can cause problems for the fairy dwellers ‘downstairs’ but there can be inconvenience for the folk upstairs too.  In one Scottish story a housewife was troubled by fairy women suddenly appearing at her cottage asking to borrow items or, unbidden, undertaking household tasks for her.  A local wise man advised that the only way to escape the nusiance of this over-familiarity would be to demolish the existing house and rebuild it elsewhere.  The thatch and rafters were, however, to be left behind and burned, after sprinkling nine dishes of sea water upon them.  Later some men quarrying near the spot found bones buried, confirming for them that the place was frequented by ancestral spirits.

Spirits of Place

The fairies here seem very clearly to be genii loci- spirits of place.  In another example, they almost seem to be so intimately associated with a location that they are part of the fabric of a building itself.  Returning to the Scottish island of Tiree, there was once a house that was plagued by fairies.  They used to sit on the rafters in swarms and they would sometimes drop down and steal a potato from the pot over the fire.  Eventually, the tenant decided to move.  He built a new home some distance away but, unluckily, ran out of materials before he’d finished.  He took a stone from the old house to complete the job- which meant that the fairies came too.

Fascinatingly, in this connection, Samuel Hitchins in his 1824 History of Cornwall, had this to say of fairy belief in the county.  He felt that the fairy faith was fading, except amongst the aged and ‘unenlightened’ (i.e. ignorant!), but still:

“By some, even the places of their resort is still pointed out, and particular fields and lanes are distinguished as spots which they were accustomed to frequent.  To these bushes and hedges, near which they were presumed to assemble, some degrees of veneration are still attached.  An indefinite species of sanctity is still associated with their beaten circles [i.e. fairy rings where they danced] and it is thought unlucky to injure their haunts or throw any obstacle in their way.”

Hitchins noted too the Borlase, in his Antiquities, also observed how the Cornish still saw the spriggans and fairies as real beings and paid them a kind of veneration.  In other words, certain spots were treated almost as shrines because the pixies were linked so powerfully with them.  As I have speculated before, they may be viewed as being a part of the land itself.

Further Reading

See my recently released book, Faeryfor more discussion of  faery places and faery homes.  For more on the faeries’ interactions with nature, see my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021):

Natural World