|two beeches, one red, one green|
The words seelie and unseelie come to us from Scots, itself an amalgam of a variety of languages found in the Lowland areas of Scotland. Although its most often seen today as 'Seelie' it also appears in older texts in a variety of forms including seely, seily, sealy, with seely being the most common (DSL, 2016). It is often a term in Scots dictionaries associated with the fairies and given as an adjective to describe both a fairy court and the disposition of individual fairies themselves. Meanings for seelie are given ranging from happy, blessed, lucky, fortunate, and good natured, as well as having connotations of bringing good luck (DSL, 2016; Jamieson, 1808). In contrast unseelie - also spelled oonseely, onseely, unsealy, or unseely - means dangerous, unlucky, unfavorable, unhappy, unholy, and ungodly (DSL, 2016). The word unseelie, in the form of unsely, can be found as far back as the 16th century meaning unlucky or miserable but has generally been applied to times, places, and animals (DSL, 2016). I have been unable to find any older references to unseelie being applied to fairies.
The Seelie court is described in relation to the fairies specifically as the "pleasant or happy court, or court of the pleasant and happy people" and is also given as a general term for all fairies (Jamieson, 1808). In folklore the Seelie court can act benevolently at times for no reason other the sake of kindness, as we see in the 1783 ballad of Allison Gross, where the eponymous witch of the story punishes a man who refused her sexual advances by bespelling him into the shape of a worm. The unfortunate man is cursed to circle around a tree every day in this form, until one Halloween "when the seely court was riding by" and the queen stops, picks up the worm, and uses her magic to restore his original shape to him (Child, 1882). They are also know to be extremely generous to those whom they favor and to be kind to the poor, giving bread and grain as gifts (Briggs, 1976). It was believed that members of the Seelie court would help those who propitiated them and that this help took various forms including the fairy doing work for the human around their home or farm (McNeill, 1956). Despite its reputation as generally kindly the Seelie court was known to readily revenge any wrongs or slights against themselves, and even a fairy who would be considered Seelie, such as a Brownie, could be dangerous when offended or harmed. The Seelie court is not known to harm people without reason though and generally will warn people at least once before retaliating against offenses (Briggs, 1976).
The Seelie court can also act in ways that go against what we would consider goodness, or at least in ways that bring harm to humans, without a clear reason. We see this in the Ballad of Lady Mary O' Craignethan where the Lord's daughter is quite deviously kidnapped by a man of the sidhe to be his bride; the Lord then curses the fairy folk, wishing that the Devil may take three of them instead of one as his tithe, and swearing to cut down every oak, beech, and ash in the country to which the priest begs him "dinnae curse the Seelie Court" (Sand, Brymer, Murray, & Cochran, 1819). This illustrates that it was in fact the Seelie court that was believed to be behind the kidnapping, although as we shall see later the term Seelie court itself may have served as a euphemism for all fairies, rather than a specific term only for the benevolent ones.
The Unseelie court is for all intents and purposes the antithesis of the Seelie court, as implied by the name. The Unseelie court is described as always unfavorable to humans and is closely linked to the Sluagh sidhe, the malicious Host who torment people and cause illness and death where they visit (Briggs, 1976). The Sluagh itself is strongly tied to the dead and is known to kidnap hapless mortals and force them to help with the Host's entertainment, usually harming other humans, before dropping them in a location far from where they were grabbed. The Unseelie court is comprised of many solitary fairies of a malicious nature, those who feed on or enjoy hurting mortals for sport, although not all Unseelie fairies are solitary (Briggs, 1976). The Unseelie court was seen as constantly ready to cause harm or injury to mortals and were avoided as much as possible, and many different protections existed against them (McNeill, 1956; Briggs, 1976).
However just as the Seelie court could cause harm if motivated to, and sometimes without having any clear reason at all, so too the Unseelie court's denizens may occasionally act kindly towards humans without any obvious rhyme or reason. For example Kelpies are usually considered Unseelie by most reckonings, as they trick people into riding them only to kill and eat the person once they have gotten back to their watery homes, however in several stories a Kelpie will fall in love with a mortal girl and put aside his own bloodthirsty nature for her sake. In one such story the Kelpie even put up with being tricked by the girl, captured himself and forced to work in his horse form on her father's farm for a year, and still loved her enough in the end to choose to marry her (McNeill, 2001). So while it may be convenient and often expedient to divide the Other Crowd up into the two courts based on how they relate to us, we should be very cautious about seeing the division as a hard line or seeing a perceived placement in one court or another as a non-negotiable indicator of behavior.
As mentioned above the term seelie may not have been as specific in the past as it is today and when we look at its usage in older ballads and stories seelie often appears as a euphemism (DSL, 2016). That means that just like calling Themselves 'Good Neighbors', 'Mother's Blessing', or 'Fair Folk' it isn't done because they are those things but because we want them to be those things towards us. In other words we are using a euphemism - a nicer term for something generally considered not nice at all - to try to invoke the nicer aspects of them. To remind them that they can be nice. There is long standing and deep belief that what we choose to call the Fey directly relates to how they will respond to us and interact with us. As this 1842 rhyme illustrates:
"Gin ye ca' me imp or elf
I rede ye look weel to yourself;
Gin ye call me fairy
I'll work ye muckle tarrie;
Gind guid neibour ye ca' me
Then guid neibour I will be;
But gin ye ca' me seelie wicht
I'll be your freend baith day and nicht."
[If you call me imp or elf
I counsel you, look well to yourself;
If you call me fairy
I'll work you great misery;
If good neighbor you call me
Then good neighbor I will be;
But if you call me seelie wight*
I'll be your friend both day and night]
It should also be noted that the term unseelie referring to fairies is newer than the term seelie and does not appear in the Scots dictionary at all with this connotation, while seelie clearly does. The oldest reference I could find to seelie for fairies is from a story dated to the late 1500's referenced in a book from 1801; in the 'Legend of the Bishop of St Androis' it says:
"Ane Carling of the Quene of Phareis
that ewill win gair to elphyne careis;
Through all Braid Albane scho hes bene
On horsbak on Hallow ewin;
and ay in seiking certayne nyghtis
As scho sayis, with sur sillie wychtis"
[one woman of the Queen of Fairies
that will take goods to Fairyland
through all broad Scotland she has been
on horseback on Halloween
and always in seeking certain nights
as she says, with our Seelie wights]
This reference uses the term Seelie as a generic for fairy with no obvious distinction as to benevolence or malevolence, as do the other ballad references, supporting the idea that at some point there was likely only the concept of the single Seelie Court, used as a euphemism for all fairies. Much like the Welsh calling their fairies Tylwyth Teg [Fair Family] or the Irish use of the term Daoine Maithe [Good People] the Scottish Seelie Court [Blessed court or Happy court] may initially have been a way to speak of the fairies so that should their attention be drawn they would be more likely to be well disposed towards the speaker. This concept, at some later point was divided into seelie and unseelie to better define those beings who either meant humans well, generally, or meant humans harm, generally. While it may seem strange to us now, it is entirely logical that in the past people would have used the euphemistic Seelie Court when referring to the fairies, but not had an inverse negative concept as it would have been seen as impossibly dangerous to even speak of such a group and risk drawing their attention and facing their wrath for it. This could also explain why the idea of the courts as such is unique to Lowland Scots lore and more generally Scottish folklore. It is not found in Welsh or Irish fairylore** where euphemisms like 'Mother's Blessing' and 'People of Peace' are still used by preference.
*wicht or wight is a general term in Scots that means both any living being as well as any supernatural being
**although I believe in recent decades the idea of the two courts has spread to Ireland, it isn't found in older material to my knowledge and I was unable to find a single reference to the two courts in any of my Irish folklore books. The Irish system is based on a multitude of sidhe (fairy hills) ruled by different kings and queens, with each being its own kingdom in a way. All the Irish Fair Folk, it seems, are ambivalent in nature and cannot easily be placed into a grouping of 'good' or 'wicked'.
DSL (2016) Dictionary of the Scots Language
Briggs, K., (1976). A Dictionaryof Fairies
McNeill, F., (1956) The Silver Bough
Child, F., (1882) The English and Scottish Popular Ballads
Jamieson, J., (1808) An Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language
Chambers, R., (1842) Popular Rhymes, Fireside Stories, and Amusements of Scotland
Sands, Brymer, Murray, and Cochran, (1819) The Edinburgh Magazine and Literary Miscellany, vol. 83
Dalyell, J., (1801) Scottish Poems of the Sixteenth Century
McNeil, H., (2001). The Celtic Breeze