|'La Belle Dame sans Merci' by John Waterhouse|
The most well known Leannán Sí is a figure from folklore and is perhaps the more obviously dangerous. The name is often Anglicized to its more phonetic form of 'Leanan Shee'. Yeats described this spirit as one that sought to seduce mortals, and if successful would feed on their life energy while inspiring their creativity; the only escape according to him was to find another to replace yourself in her affections, or else you would be bound to her even beyond death (Yeats, 1888). This Leannán Sí was fond of poets and musicians and other naturally creative people, but her presence meant a short, if intensely productive, life. According to Yeats if a person could resist her allure then she would become bound to their service instead, although one may assume this was the more rare occurrence (Yeats, 1888). The Manx version of this spirit, the Lhiannan-Shee, was more blatantly vampiric in nature; said to haunt springs and wells, invisible to everyone except the man she seduced, she would drain his life until he wasted away (Briggs, 1976). Generally when we hear stories of the Leannán Sí they feature a supernatural female of great beauty who seduces a man and once she has him as her lover she draws his vitality from him causing him to slowly die; in the Irish stories this is done in exchange for extra-ordinary inspiration, while in the Manx the only thing given is the Lhiannan-Shee's company to the man. However there are equivalent beings by different names that are more literally vampiric. In Scotland we find the Baobhan Sith, literally 'wicked fairy woman', who seduces a young man into dancing with her and then drains him of blood leaving him dead by morning (Briggs, 1976).
Although usually described as female there is a version of the dangerously seductive Leannán Sí that is male - the Gean-cánach, or 'love talker'. He appears as an attractive young man smoking a pipe, walking in the untamed places, and is quick to seduce women when he can, after which they lose the will to live (Briggs, 1967). There are some clear parallels between these two spirits as both seek to seduce mortals and this seduction results in the person's wasting and eventual death. The biggest difference between the Leannán Sí and the Gean-cánach is that the Love Talker only lays once with his victim then departs never to be seen again, leaving her to waste away for want of him (or perhaps because he has stolen some vital life energy from her) while the Leannán Sí is a regular visitor to her victim throughout his life and possibly afterwards.
The second, and less discussed, leannán sí is a more straightforward one, a person of the Sí of either gender who takes a human lover. Katherine Briggs in her book 'Fairies in Tradition and Literature' devotes an entire chapter to this type of leannán sí and their place in fairylore. The most well known by far example of this type of leannán sí is the story of Niamh and Oisin in the Fenian Cycle. In this tale Fionn's son Oisin is captivated by a fairy woman, Niamh. He chooses to go to Tir na nOg with her, where they live happily together and she bears him a son and daughter. However as time passes he begins to miss his friends and wishes to visit Ireland again; Niamh warns him that if he goes he must not dismount his horse because if he touches the ground he will die. Of course while he is there he finds that hundreds of years have passed and all the people he knew have died, and through mischance his saddle slips and he falls, instantly aging when he hits the ground.
With this type of fairy lover they may or may not seek to take the human partner out of the mortal world, and may or may not produce offspring with the human partner in stories. In most cases if a child is produced the family will later trace its decent back to that spirit, such as the Fitzgeralds' tracing their ancestry to the fairy Queen Aine who was a lover of the earl of Desmond. Some versions of the story of clan MacLeod's Fairy Flag say that it was a gift from a fairy lover. It is not infrequent in stories for a fairy lover to give a family line they are part of a special item or token as a sign of favor. The Lhiannan-Shee of Ballafletcher was connected to the Fletcher family who had a custom once a year of drinking from a fairy cup which she had given them (Briggs, 1976).
In some stories the mortal remains in our world but regularly sees her fairy lover, shunning any human love in turn. In one tale from Scotland a girl had such a fairy lover and made the mistake of trusting her secret to her sister who then spread the tale; in anger the girl's leannán sí abandoned her and she went mad from his loss (Briggs, 1967). In a tale from Ireland a young man had a fairy lover who took him into the Sí on Bealtaine; a fairy doctor was called for and for 9 days and nights sought to get the young man back until finally he appeared and begged to be allowed to remain with his new wife (Briggs, 1967). In many cases like this the human partner is simply taken into Fairy and removed from the human world entirely, often under the guise of having apparently died in our world. In the stories where the human partner stays in our world but sees her leannán sí regularly she is often required to keep him a secret or lose him. As with all things however there are various versions and exceptions to be found.*
Several folk songs immortalize attempts by mortals to win the heart of a fairy lover, including Scarborough Fair, which is based on older folk ballads including The Fairy Knight; and the ballad of Tam Lin which also survives as a song today. In the first example the girl wishes for an elfin knight as a lover or husband and he responds with a list of seemingly impossible tasks she must first accomplish. In the second example a girl takes a fairy lover (Tam Lin who was a mortal taken into Fairy as a child) and only after they have been lovers for a time and she seeks to abort the child she is carrying does he tell her the quite difficult way she must win him free of the Fairy Queen so he can be her husband. Some versions of ballads of fairy lovers are decidedly grim, such as Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight which tells the story of a woman who wishes for an elf knight on Bealtaine morning only to have him appear and kidnap her to a greenwood where he tells her that he is going to kill her as he has seven other king's daughters before her; she tricks him into falling asleep, binds him with his own sword belt, and kills him with his own dagger then escapes. Similar ballads exist that begin the same way but where the elfin knight tries to drown the girl who must outwit him to escape. These represent a clear warning to be careful before wishing for a fairy lover, although most other tales are far less murderous and when they end badly do so because of a failure on the human partner's end to keep their lover a secret resulting in abandonment. We may see echoes of this theme in Keats poem 'La Belle Dame sans Merci' which tells the story of a knight who loved a fairy maiden who took him 'to her elfin grotto' and enchanted him only to abandon him. The knight was then left to waste away, pining for what he could not have, although this could also perhaps be an example of the more directly harmful kind of Leannán Sí as well. Looking at these stories and ballads we can see the challenges and difficulties this sort of leannán sí presents, as they may not always be as overtly dangerous as the first sort but they can often lead a person to the same eventual end.
Not all instances of humans with fairy lovers end badly for the human though, as some tales do make it clear that the non-human half of the pairing genuinely cares for the human partner. There is at least one story recorded by Evans Wentz of a man with a fairy lover who immigrated to America and his Otherwordly lover followed him there (Briggs, 1967). There are two stories I know about featuring Kelpies who fall in love with mortal women and go against their own nature for the sake of their human partner. In one Irish tale a Kelpie loves a girl but is tricked into becoming a beast of burden on her father's farm after she finds out his true nature. After a year of such work the girl and her family consult a fairy doctor who asks the Kelpie if he would choose to be a mortal man so he in turn asks the girl if she still wants to marry him*; she says yes and he chooses to become mortal so the two are married (McNeill, 2001). In a less cheerful story from Scotland a Kelpie falls in love with a mortal woman and courts her. They wed and she bears him a son, but one day she realizes his true nature and flees. Heartbroken the Kelpie remains in their small home, raising their child, and waiting futilely for her to return.
Some bean feasa were also known to have leannán sí, as in the case of Eibhlin Ni Ghuinniola, about whom it was said "a 'fairy lover', a leannán sí, was often seen with [her] as she gathered plants". (O Crualaoich, 2003, p. 191). It was believed in such cases that it was through this connection to the Otherworld that these women gained their knowledge of magic and cures, although a leannán sí was not always involved with the wise women. Some then could maintain a relationship with a fairy lover and also remain at least for a time in our world and would benefit from the knowledge gained from their fairy associations.
As we can see the threads of myth and folklore provide two distinct but perhaps intertwined views of the Leannán Sí. The Leannán Sí as a distinct being seduces and inspires, gives creativity but drains away life. The related beings like the Gean-cánach and Baobhan Sith similarly use their beauty and appeal to gain lovers whom they destroy in the taking, feeding on either their life force or blood. In contrast the more general fairy lovers may bless or ruin their human lover, may steal them from this world, abandon them to it, or be constant companions. One is a more overtly malevolent, seductive figure which is a distinct type of being in its own right; the other a more ambiguous term applied to different beings which in its own way embodies all that Fairy itself is - alluring, sometimes dangerous, sometimes generous.
* to be absolute clear here because English can be annoying, 'fairy lover' meaning a lover who is a member of Fairy, not a human who loves fairies.
*I'm not going to address the Roan/Selkies as leannán sí because that is an entire involved topic of its own, for example, with its own rules and obligations and gets more into abductions and fairy wives/spouses.
* don't ask me why he still wanted to marry her at that point, I have no idea.
Yeats, W., (1888) Fairy and Folktales of the Irish Peasantry
Briggs, K., (1976). A Dictionary of Fairies
Briggs, K., (1967). The Fairies in Tradition and Literature
O Crualaoich, G., (2003). The Book of the Cailleach
McNeil, (2001). The Celtic Breeze