British fairy tradition

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Fairy traditions are common in the British Isles and Brittany. Unfortunately, we will probably never know very much about the pre-Christian faiths in the Isles.

Common characteristics

The following themes seem common throughout the various regions:

  • Fairies live underground or under water.
    • Fairies have been associated with both barrows (burial mounds) and natural, very green hills.
      • The Irish Daoine Sidhe are from the hollow hills.
      • In Wales, the Taliesin tale tells of an underground Fairyland.
      • In Scotland, the fairyland is located under hills, and near the full moon the tops rise on pillars, and passers by may be able to see inside their dwellings.
    • Some fairies are thought to have cities under the waves. Others are said to live on islands which are invisible from the shores (like Avalon).

  • Fairies generally wear green or white clothes, with red sashes and hats being fashionable with them. Occasionally, they are dressed in ragged grey clothing, however. They tend to wear "old-fashioned" clothes.

  • Fairies like to steal human children, and replace them with their own, hairy children or with an older fairy who pretends to be the infant. The babies so stolen are well looked after, and may sometimes escape after 14 years. Yeats' poem, Stolen Child, suggests that they do this out of kindness "for the world's more full of weeping than you can understand", but there are other suggestions that fairies have a hard time reproducing, and need human children to replenish their numbers. Sometimes they steal human mothers as well, using them as nursemaids for their own children. Many children who failed to thrive and develop normally were taken for fairy changelings, which may have been the origin of these stories.

  • Time passes differently in Fairyland. Most people who spend time with the fairies feel that a few hours or days have passed, but when they come back, it may be that years or even centuries have gone by.

  • Fairies love music and dancing. They could often be seen, in times past, dancing in fairy rings (mushroom rings) or around bonfires. Anyone who joined the dancing was likely to be caught up in it and unable to leave until the music stopped or someone pulled them out. They would often, when rescued, be surprised to hear that they had been dancing all night.

Fairies and plants

Over the years, a number of plants became associated with fairies, either as good for warding them off or curing the diseases they were believed to cause, or as plants which were special or sacred to fairies.

Trees

Of trees, the oak, hawthorn, hazel and apple were considered the favorites of fairies. A bag of hazelnuts was given to brides to help ensure that the couple would have children. Any solitary tree or bush, however, was considered to belong to the fae, and heaven help anyone who harmed the tree in any way. To cut one down was to invite curses and illness, and to burn any part of one was certain to cause the house it was used in to burn to the ground.

Willow trees, also, were related to fairies, and it was thought that willow trees would follow travellers around at night, muttering as they went.

Ash and mountain ash (rowan) were used to protect against fairies. Hung in the cattles' stalls, it was supposed to stop them from being "fairy-shot", or being cursed with other diseases. Ash or rowan crosses hung over a baby's crib would stop the fairies from stealing the child.

Flowers and plants

Fairies are supposed to love primroses and foxglove the very best of all flowers. If you grow them in your garden, be sure to look after them well, as they will become upset if they are not properly cared for. Other garden flowers they like include tulips, periwinkles, and forget-me-nots. People were warned not to go into the woods to pick blue belles; children who picked them in the woods might be stolen, and adults would be "fairy-led" (wander around lost and in a daze) until someone found them and led them home. Other plants which were associated with fairies were wild thyme, ragwort (they were known to turn them into steeds and ride them), rye grass, broom, red campion and devil's bit scabious. I don't know what the last two things are.

To counteract or drive off fairies, people used St. John's Wort, which was supposed to protect against a great many things, including fairy blight, witchcraft, and the devil. Also popular were verbena, speedwell, eyebright, marrow, and yarrow. Yarrow in particular was supposed to be most effective if gathered at noon on a bright day near a full moon.

Four-leaf clovers are also mentioned in several fairy tales as being made into an eye ointment which, when applied to the eye, allows mortals to see fairies and also see through fairy glamour.

The Banshee

The Banshee is a spirit who appears shortly before someone dies.

The Banshee takes on slightly different forms in different areas, but generally it is a female fairy or ghost, which is associated with a particular, old family. Occasionally she might also appear to warn of the death of a person who was especially gifted at music or poetry.

The Banshee generally appeared in one of a few forms; either a virgin female of the family who died young, who would sing, or a shrouded, veiled woman who wailed in mourning. Sometimes she would crouch under a tree, and sometimes she would fly by the house, crying bitterly. The cry of the banshee is supposed to be the most mournful sound on earth.

Banshees have been known to follow the family they are attached to abroad to other countries.

Occasionally the Scottish highland banshee is seen washing the clothes of those about to die in battle, and not just warning of the deaths of someone of a particular family.

Household Fairies

There are several kinds of household fairies. The most common in the British Isles are brownies or hob goblins. In spite of the fact that we nowadays think of hob goblins as evil, the word hob refers to the hearth, and hob goblins were household helpers.

Occasionally pixies (with "squinny eyes & hairy bodies") would be the household helpers, and in Wales, the house spirits were called Bwbacks or Bwcas. In the Isle of Man, the fenodyree was a household/farm helper. He was hairy and very strong, able to thrash a barnful of corn in one night.

Brownies

Most brownie stories came from the border area between England and Scotland. Again, the themes of the stories are generally similar. These fairies might help out the family either in the home or out in the barns/ fields/mills. To attract a Bwbach, the maid would sweep the kitchen clean, make a good fire before going to bed, and put out the butter churn, filled with cream on the (spotlessly clean) hearth. She would also put out a basin of cream for the Bwbach, and go to bed. In the morning, if she was lucky, a Bwbach would indeed have come, and churned the cream until she only had to move the churn-dasher a few times before she would have butter.

Brownie-type fairies seem to have been extremely hard workers, as in the case of the fenodyree who could thrash a barnful of grain in one night. They would go on in this manner for years, until one of two things happened;
someone might insult them in some way by saying or doing something the fairy took offense to. Fairies are apparently quite sensitive, and offense might be taken at something unintended.
Or, (though again, this may be a case of offense taken where none was intended) if the fairy is offered clothing, they will leave. Apparently most brownies are hairy and naked. The farmer or his wife often feel sorry for them in the stories, and decide to give them clothing so that they will be warm. When the gift is found, the brownie leaves.

If the brownie is insulted, it sometimes just leaves and goes to the next farm. It is never a good idea to insult them, however, as they may pull nasty pranks as a result.

Not all brownies are always helpful. Some of them come in at night and if things are a mess, they tidy them, but if things are tidy, they throw them everywhere.

Early brownies were often of human size or larger (like the fenodyree), but later they are described as small, wizened and shaggy. Sometimes they were supposed not to have separate toes or fingers (webbed?), or to have just nostrils and no noses. James Hogg, who may be considered an expert on fairies, since his maternal grandfather, he claimed, was the last man in the Ettrick region to converse with them, wrote a story called The Brownie of Bodsbeck In which the brownie is described as "small of stature, and its whole form utterly misshaped. Its beard was long and gray, while its look and every lineament of its face, were indicative of agony; its locks were thin, dishevelled, and white, and its back haunched up behind its head." (The brownie eventually proves to be a human.)

Some house spirits turn out to be ghosts of children who have died in the service of the house sometime earlier. One such helper turned out to be the stable boy from a previous generation, who had been killed by the lord of the manor.

Not all brownies lived around families. Some of them are guardians of orchards and similar places. One which lived in the wilderness was even supposed to cure whooping cough.

Other house fairies

The "Wag-at-the-wa" is a Scottish fairy which sat on the pot-hook hanging over the kitchen fire. It was a grotesque old man with a tail and short legs, which wore a nightcap, and a bandage tied around its face because it had a lot of toothaches. It liked children and laughed a lot, but would plague lazy servants. He also got upset if the family drank strong liquor.

The boggart is a type of house fairy which is not at all pleasant like the brownie. They would live in one home, and pull nasty and sometimes dangerous pranks. (Rather like a poltergeist.) The boggart is supposed to have a long, sharp nose.

Elemental and Nature Fairies

Again, this is limited to Britain--there are a number of other fairies such as dryads etc. from other countries that I am not touching on here.

Many of the Nature or elemental fairies are related to water in some way.

Kelpies

Kelpies are water fairies which hung mostly around rivers. They disguised themselves as pretty horses, but when ridden they would run off with their riders, dumping them into the water, and usually drowning them. Like many fairies, they could change their shapes, and sometimes they fell in love with local women and courted them. The woman usually found them out because they would have sand, water weeds, or other bits of water plants in their hair.

Silkies or Selkies

Silkies or Selkies are seals which have the ability to take on human form. They are among the most common of fairy brides. Generally, a man would see them bathing and fall in love with them. When in human form, the selkie sheds her seal skin, and a man who wished her to be his bride would steal and hide it. When she found the sealskin, she would put it on and return to the water.

Fuath

The fuath is a malignant highland spirit. It has web feet, yellow hair, a green dress, tail, mane, and no nose. They would sometimes marry men. They would die if exposed to the light, or harmed by cold steel.

Gwrayedd Annwn

Welsh water fairy, similar in many ways to the selkie and to water nymphs. The Gwrayedd Annwn lives in lakes, and, like the selkie, sometimes marry men. There always seemed to be strings attached, however. Generally the bride to be would warn her groom that if he did a certain thing, he would lose her. The taboo would always eventually be broken, and she would leave. They were always believed to be beautiful, and would sing and play, and ride boats around on the water. They owned many cattle. Fairy cattle are distinguishable because they have round ears, and often are white with red ears.

Bucca

Bucca is another nature spirit, possibly a sea god at one time. The fishermen on the coasts would leave an offering of fish for him, and throw a piece of bread from their lunch over their left shoulders for him.
He was used to scare children into behaving, with a "stop crying or the bucca-boo will come and take you away". Bucca Gwidden was supposed to be good, while Bucca Dhu was bad.

Other fairies

There are many other fairies who were used to frighten children away from dangerous places. One example was Jenny Greenteeth, who was supposed to live in stagnant ponds and grab and drown people who wandered too close.