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Friday, August 28, 2015

Witches, Mná Feasa, and Fairy Doctors, oh my!

A peer reviewed version of this article can be found in the 2014 Lughnasa/Samhain issue of Air n-Aithesc here

Waterhouse, The Mystic Wood, 1917

   In modern American terms we tend to call anyone who works with low magic or folk magic a witch, however from an Irish perspective such people actually fell into roughly three groups: witches called caillí (singular cailleach) in Irish, fairy doctors, and mná feasa (singular ban feasa). It is important to note up front that all three of these terms can be and sometimes are used interchangeably, and a single person, such as Biddy Early may be given all three labels by different people. To give an example, ban feasa means wise woman, but so does cailleach feasa, and both might be called a fairy doctor or a witch in English, depending on context and what they are doing. It's also important to understand that the Irish view of witches is not the same as the more commonly held traditional one; Irish witches were feared because they might steal milk from the family cows or ill-wish people, but they did not have the deeply sinister reputation found elsewhere.
    The final chapter of Kevin Danaher's book Irish Customs and Beliefs begins with an anecdote from the author's youth. He tells of an experience he had upon meeting an old woman named Nellie in Clare, who, he discovers later, is known through the area for her herbal cures and propensity to curse anyone who offended her. He ends the passage by saying:
"On the way home that day I couldn't help thinking that the old lady was very like the witch in the story books; the black cat in the hearth and the heather besom behind the door were just what a witch should have, and when I heard of her cures and curses my suspicion grew. But I soon found out that the classic figure of the witch cleaving the night air on a broomstick with her cat perched on the pillion was not recognized in local tradition. Old Nellie might be a bean feasa, skilled in cures and in divination, or even an old cailleach who stole the cows milk disguised as a hare, but not a witch." (Danaher, 1964, pages 121-122).
    This passage demonstrates a key difference between the Irish view of witches and the commonly understood one, which is based on continental views. While stories from continental and even British folklore depict witches flying through the air, gathering at meetings with the Devil and using their powers to curse and torment their neighbors by withering crops, causing illness, and killing, the figure of the Irish witch is very different. Although still seen as negative and working against the community the Irish witch in folklore is often less severe and less destructive. Most commonly Irish witches are described stealing milk while in the form of a hare or otherwise working magic on the cattle (O hOgain, 1995). These Irish witches may be referred to as “butter witches” to differentiate them from the more sinister continental ones (O Crualaoich, 2003). 
The more sinister view of witches seems to have been imported from Europe at a later time and never took the strong hold on the country that it did elsewhere, notably in Scotland (Danaher, 1964). Instead of the idea of truly evil witches we see stories of the cailleach, usually an old woman, intent on stealing milk from the cows and disrupting a family's luck.
    Ireland had very few witch trials over the centuries and these were usually within settlements of those of non-Irish descent (Danaher, 1964). The last witch trial on record in Ireland occurred in Carrickfergus in 1711 and resulted in a conviction and a sentence of the pillory and a year in prison (Danaher, 1964). This seems to reflect the different attitude with which the Irish approached the subject, compared to the far more rabid witch-hunting that went on in Europe. Perhaps because the beliefs about witches were not as severe or perhaps because the belief in the supernatural and use of magic in folklore was so strong even after Christianization, the Irish witch never created the hysteria in Ireland that was the hallmark of Europe during this period. 
   What is particularly worth noting though is the connection between Irish and Scottish witches and fairies, something that is shared with bean feasa and fairy doctors. While the latter two use the knowledge they gain from the Other Crowd to heal or cure magical afflictions, the witch uses her fairy-given knowledge to harm. The witch knows how to use elfshot, and does so in ways that - according to the Scottish witch trial records anyway, which we must look to given the scarcity of Irish witch trials - seem to have been an attempt to use supernatural power where social power was lacking. Often in these trial records we see witches confessing to making deals with or consorting with fairies, going to fairies for knowledge, and going to them to obtain elfshot (Hall, 2005). In the Irish we see witches, like fairies, taking the form of hares in order to steal milk from the cows and this may indicate another connection between the two (O hOgain, 1995). 
   The terms bean feasa and fairy doctor are often used interchangeably and indeed there is at best a fine difference between the two. It is highly likely that the two terms, one in Irish one in English, originally were applied to a singular type of practitioner; however in the modern source material we do see a nuanced difference between how the two terms are used. The bean feasa is often called to find lost objects and discern through divination the cause and cure of ailments, from illness to butter failing to churn (O Crualaoich, 2005). The fairy doctor, on the other hand, is called when fairy involvement is known or suspected, especially relating to afflictions caused by them, or when witchcraft is suspected, in order to discern the best cure (Wilde, 1991). The ban feasa was said to never teach her magic to others or preform her charms in front of people, while the fairy doctor could teach others, particularly passing her knowledge on to her child (Wilde, 1991; Locke, 2013). One might argue that the bean feasa is more of a general practitioner while the fairy doctor is a specialist, but both derive knowledge and power from their relationship with the Other Crowd. 
   Bean feasa means wise woman but it has connotations of someone who deals with the Other Crowd (fairies), specifically someone who gains their knowledge from the Gentry and is often away with them. It was believed that a bean feasa gained her power after being taken by the Fair Folk or spending time with them; that they taught her occult knowledge and continued to provide her with information and help (O Cualaoich, 2005). Often such a woman might appear to have knowledge of events occurring at a distance or the location of items, and such knowledge was said to be given to them by the fairies (O Cualaoich, 2003). The bean feasa helped the community with herbal remedies, divination, and advice especially relating to the fairies. Bean feasa were almost always older women, unmarried, who were known to travel (O Crualaoich, 2005). Biddy Early was a notable exception to this being often married and stationary; such was her reputation for curing that people came from all over to see her (Magic and Religious Cures, 2014). Herbal cures are employed by the bean feasa, but generally are used for their magical, more than their medicinal, properties (O Craulaoich, 2005). This can be seen in stories which describe the special way or place the herb must be gathered or include geasa around their use. These geis may include no one watching as they are prepared or given, the herb being brought to the person in total silence, or not looking backwards (O Craulaoich, 2005). Although known for clairvoyance and getting knowledge from the Gentry, the bean feasa were also known to use a form of divination involving dishes, sieves, or bowls, where they would shift or move around a selection of these items and then divine based on how the objects settle (O Crualaoich, 2003). 
   Lady Wilde describes fairy doctors thus: "The fairy doctors are generally females. Old women, especially, are considered to have peculiar mystic and supernatural power. They cure chiefly by charms and incantations, transmitted by tradition through many generations; and by herbs, of which they have a surprising knowledge." (Wilde, 1991). Whereas witches were thought to gain their powers from alliances with spirits and their own will, fairy doctors got theirs from the Good People (Yeats, 1888). Fairy doctors were more specific in what they did than the bean feasa, focusing on things that seemed to have a supernatural cause, and would be called in to discern if that cause was malignant witchcraft or fairies. The fairy doctor was most known for being able to recognize the ill effects of elfshot, the fairy wind, and the evil eye, all of which she could diagnose and then treat with charms or incantations, and less often herbal remedies (Wilde, 1991). Fairy doctors were also thought to be able to have the spirit sight and so could deal with the Fair Folk and see, for example, if a home had been built on a fairy road or near a fairy door.  It was believed that a person, usually but not always a woman, became a fairy doctor after either being away with the fairies or after suffering an illness that brought her near death and so closer to the spirit world (Locke, 2013). This closeness to the fairies granted the fairy doctor a special knowledge of magical afflictions and of herbal cures, and in some cases may have granted some type of psychic power. The fairy doctor used herbs, crystals, chants, charms, and special healing stones to work their cures (Locke, 2013). 
  It is said in many sources that the bean feasa and fairy doctors both would take no money for their charms or spells, but would accept gifts afterwards; money could be taken though for herbal cures (Wilde, 1991). Fairy doctors were known to be paid in barter, especially food and drink (Locke, 2013). It should be kept in mind though that the gifting after a cure was a requirement more than a suggestion; Biddy Early was said to make enough in her curing work that none of her husbands had to work.
   So what we see is a complex belief system that - much like the Fairy Faith's own approach to viewing the Good People - encompasses a selection of titles given to a certain type of magical practitioner whose application varied by circumstance and perspective. One person's cailleach may be another's bean feasa, and a third might describe that person as a fairy doctor - as we see with Biddy Early who bears all three titles. A close look at each shows distinct differences and specific practices and skills that define each one, however in modern pagan practice it is difficult to clearly delineate between the ban feasa and fairy doctor, if the terms are even known, and both might be lumped under the wider term of witchcraft. I believe though that it would do us well to try to return to the more nuanced meanings and get away from a dependence on the more common but less specific term of "witch" for those who do fit the general descriptions of bean feasa or fairy doctor. Certainly both are still here, and as more attention is brought to the old fairy beliefs and practices both the bean feasa and fairy doctor can find a place in the modern world.


Hall, A., (2005) Getting Shot of Elves: Healing, Witchcraft and Fairies in the Scottish Witchcraft Trials. 
Folklore Vol. 116, No. 1 (Apr., 2005)
O Crualaoich, G., (2005) Reading the Bean Feasa. Folklore Vol. 116, No. 1 (Apr., 2005)
O Crualaoich, G., (2003) The Book of The Cailleach
Magic and Religious Cures (2014). Ask About Ireland. Retrieved from
Danaher, K., (1964). Irish Customs and Beliefs
Wilde, L., (1991). Irish Cures and Mystic Superstitions
O hOgain, D., (1995). Irish Superstitions

Yeats, W (1888). Fairy and Folktales of the Irish Peasantry 
Locke, T., (2013). The Fairy Doctor. Retrieved from


  1. Thank you so much for the education on this am just learning all things Wiccan and witchcraft and I would hate to offend anyone. Is good to know the lingo. PEACE LOVE AND LIGHT TO ALL.

  2. Nice article Morgan, happy to recommend your research and writing on further, as ever.

    Le meas,

    1. As always you have found a way to educate many in such a short write up. Good stuff Morgan.

  3. Thank you so much for your research and sharing. You are such a ray of light in the darkness.