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Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Seelie and Unseelie Courts

   By many accounts the beings of Fairy are divided into two courts, the Seelie and Unseelie. This is often simplified as the 'good' and 'bad' fairies, or as F. Marian McNeill says the 'gude wichts'* and the 'wicked wichts' and was initially a Lowland Scottish belief that later spread (McNeill, 1956). I think we lose the nuances between the two when we try to reduce them into such blunt terms as good and bad (or worse good and evil) and also that many modern people may not fully understand the concepts of seelie and unseelie. So let's look at what exactly seelie and unseelie mean, and how the two courts were traditionally understood, as well as the likely original roots of both as a single entity. 

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."
(Chambers, 1842)
[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

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Fairy Witchcraft Ethics in the Context of a Gaming Alignment

"Out-worn heart, in a time out-worn,
Come clear of the nets of wrong and right"
 - W. B. Yeats

 There's a running joke among my friends - or at least it started out as a joke - that I consider myself 'Chaotic Neutral'. It grew out of my adopting the gaming alignment term for my particular approach to ethics within my practice of Fairy Witchcraft (specifically, because Druidic ethics would definitely be more Lawful Good). If you're guessing at this point that I have previous experience playing rpgs you would be correct. I had started to refer to myself as Chaotic Neutral because I found some aspects of the gaming alignment actually fairly descriptive of both situational ethics and fey ethics and also because I thought it was funny. Over time people began to ask me, quite seriously, what it meant and it shifted from something that was purely a jest to something more solid. Which is oddly a very Chaotic Neutral thing for it to do. But lets back up a bit for people who don't know what Chaotic Neutral is.

 This is the standard gaming definition. At its core Chaotic Neutral is neither good nor evil by the traditional definitions of the terms, but neutral; they do not generally seek to actively help others out of altruism nor do they seek to actively hurt for the sake of malevolence. Neutrality in this case isn't a lack of choosing sides, but a lack of commitment to either ultimate purpose, which is where the chaotic aspect comes in, because someone who is Chaotic Neutral can choose to act in either direction, to do good or to harm, if the situation seems to warrant either. There is an emphasis on balance and the need for both good and evil in the world. Chaotic Neutral emphasizes following your own whims, indulgence, and the value of the self. Independence, self-reliance, unpredictability, randomness, and freedom are key aspects of this alignment.

As to Fairy ethics and Fairy Witchcraft ethics (excerpted from my book Fairycraft): "Ethics in Fairy Witchcraft, as with so many things Fairy, are tricky, and may best be described as situational ethics, where there are few hard and fast rules but rather the situation dictates the correct moral response. Generally speaking a person should strive to be kind, take responsibility for their own actions, be generous, compassionate, brave, and honest because these are qualities fairies respect. However in some cases it is also good to be clever even if that involves deception, if you can pull off being tricky in an honest way, because fairies also admire people who can outsmart their adversaries. 
In any dealings with the Otherworld it is essential to be completely honorable; fairies expect that a debt will be repaid and oaths will be kept. They abhor liars, however they admire cleverness and deception is an art form in Fairy where it is entirely possible using semantics to lie by telling nothing but the absolute truth. Fairies love beauty and this includes beauty of spirit; therefore they love people who are generous, kind, helpful, and compassionate. However they themselves are also beings of unmixed passions, as Yeats would say, who love or hate completely and react to anything in ways we consider extreme. Those they approve of are often rewarded with extreme generosity while those who anger them are punished in ways that seem excessive or even cruel to us. Although they do admire determination in us, it is unwise to try to imitate this behavior ourselves as the negative end of the spectrum tends to typify the things fairies themselves dislike in us. In other words trying to act like you might believe a fairy would in anger is more likely to anger them than win their approval. 
It can be difficult for us to understand the fairy people and the fairy Gods when their behavior seems unethical to us, because there are many aspects of their nature we will never be able to fully understand. What we can know though is what they expect of us and what behavior they want to see from us, and that is what we should strive to do. Living an honorable life and being generous and honest is important for anyone following this path."

Now for me it was fairly obvious that the two concepts, fairy ethics and Chaotic Neutral alignment, overlapped. Both emphasize a degree of unpredictability and of transcending the usual understanding of 'good' and 'bad'. Chaotic Neutral and Fairy reject the idea of following human societies expectations of behavior or doing something just because its expected. A fairy bride, for example, might cry at a wedding or laugh at a funeral, and a chaotic neutral character might appear to runaway only to return and help unexpectedly. the point being that they are not bound by the rigid requirements of society at large. Both also admire trickery when its done within a specific context, usually to achieve a specific end and within very set boundaries (for example without lying). And both fairy ethics and Chaotic Neutral emphasize the value of personal fulfillment and indulgence while avoiding actions that are committed to either one extreme or another. Both also often confound people who want an easy to understand and predictable response to any situation. Sometimes a fairy will help you, sometimes they may hurt you and often people find the nuances that decide the reaction, helping or hurting, hard to predict simply because they go into the situation expecting human responses. Sometimes a character with a Chaotic Neutral alignment* will help you or hurt you, and this also often feels unpredictable, not because it is but because we tend to ignore the actual indicators of behavior and instead look for what we'd like to see from that person. In the same way the ethics of Fairy Witchcraft, because they are situation based, are not a clear-cut easy to define thing, but rather a matter of seeking to achieve the best outcome possible in the situation, and that will always be a matter of personal perspective.

My personal approach to Chaotic Neutral as a real world concept is pretty straightforward. I see it as an easy and humorous way to describe my approach to life, and particularly ethics. Being chaotic Neutral, ultimately means doing what you feel you need to do, or want to do, while simultaneously understanding that you bear the full responsibility for the consequences of all your actions, positive or negative. Freedom is important in our actions, and it is on us to choose how we react in a situation; we understand that we are not bound by a system of divine reward or punishment so much as we are obligated to deal with a system of consequences for what we do, and so then it is on us to choose our actions and accept those consequences, whatever they may be. If we were to have a Chaotic Neutral Rede it would be something like: 'Do what you enjoy, if you are willing to pay the cost'. Okay in fairness it would really be more like 'Be serious when needed, otherwise shenanigans'. That's the chaos aspect of it, the balance between serious and pleasure, between fun and grim, and sometimes the two overlap and occur simultaneously; that is also very, very Fey in its own way. There are rules, and ethics, and guidelines to follow - as mentioned above - in how to be a good person, its just that e worry about our own definition of what a good person is and not what society or other people think makes a person good or bad. A key aspect of it is understanding that perspective is hugely significant in judging whether something is 'good' or 'bad' and that one person's good is almost always another person's bad. The wolf eating the rabbit is terrible for the rabbit but great for the wolf, for example, and yet ultimately this action - terrible and great - is also necessary to preserve a much wider and important balance. And that is Chaotic Neutral.

*popculture examples of Chaotic Neutral characters: Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean, Q from Star Trek Next Generation, the eponymous character on House, Riddick, Ferris Bueller.
  For those that don't get the popculture examples - to be more straightforward: cats. Cats are Chaotic Neutral. Might cuddle with you and make you feel better. Might claw your hand and draw blood. Dealer's choice. 

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Fairy Rings

  One particular bit of folklore that is still especially relevant today is that of fairy rings, also called fairy circles, elf rings, or elf circles. In Welsh they may be known as cylch y Tylwyth Teg [literally 'circle of the Fair Family']. The concept of these rings can be found throughout the different Celtic language speaking countries as well as the various diaspora and some Anglo-Saxon and German lore as well. Fairy rings appear as either a dark circle of grass or as mushrooms growing together in a ring, and less often as a circle of dead grass or small stones. It is said in folklore and common belief that this ring marks a place where the fairies have danced or where they like to dance. In the 12th century there was an English belief which attributed rings of daisies to elves dancing (Hall, 2007). The fairies love of dancing is well known as is their penchant to take people who disturb their revelry, either as a punishment or through a desire to keep the person in Fairy (Evans-Wentz, 1911).

Fairy ring of Clitocybe nebularis (“Clouded Agaric”) photographed near Buchenberg in the Allgäu by Josimda – Own work,CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Fairy rings can appear in different sizes, from three feet across to ten times that size (Bennett, 1991; Gwyndaf, 1991). If they were the sort made of darker green within a field then they would be either moss or much darker green grass and were notable because "no rushes or anything grew on it" (Gwyndaf, 1991). From a scientific perspective fairy rings are created by the fungus mycelium and when they grow above ground can include a variety of mushroom species, both poisonous and edible. Even the dark grass circles or less common dead grass rings are the result of mycelium though, as the fungus naturally grows upwards and outwards in an expanding circle and effects the nutrient content of the soil, resulting in the visible fairy ring effect (Mushroom Appreciation, 2016). The scientific explanation doesn't necessarily contradict the fairylore explanation, and the two beliefs are compatible with each other. For example, in some folklore it isn't the fairies dancing that causes the circle but rather the existence of the circle that draws the fairies to dance there (Bennett, 2001).

A person who comes upon an active fairy ring might see the dancers within it, and even the instruments, but hear nothing from outside, although in other stories hearing the music acts as a lure to draw an unsuspecting mortal in. Most people had a clear aversion to the idea of entering a fairy ring as it was known that to do so risked the fairies coming and taking the person away. In one Welsh story preserved in the late 20th century a person was questioned about why they avoided fairy rings and they relayed the tale of a boy named Robin Jones who entered a fairy circle one evening; he saw the fairies dancing and after what seemed to him a few hours in their company he asked to leave only to return home to find that a hundred years had passed (Gwyndaf, 1991). In a similar tale a man stopped outside a fairy ring, just to watch the fairies dance within for a few hours, and lost fifteen years of time for his dallying (Gwyndaf, 1991). Often the person would dance for what seemed like a night to them, or even only a few minutes, and then be allowed to leave only to find that a year or more had passed. Some fairy rings appear to have been used as a sort of trap to intentionally lure mortals, especially children, that the Fey folk wished to take and these people if they entered the ring would never be returned (Evans-Wentz, 1911). Other times however it seems to be only chance that leads a person to find fairies dancing in a ring; in accounts from Brittany some who join them are treated well and released unharmed with little time passed while those who offend them while they dance are forced to join the circle until they collapse form exhaustion or worse (Evans-Wentz, 1911).

Once in a fairy ring, by choice or by compulsion, a person could not leave unless they were freed by the Good Folk or rescued by another human being.  In one Scottish tale a man fell asleep in the middle of a fairy ring and woke to find himself being carried through the air by the angry fairies who dumped him in a city many miles away (Briggs, 1978). In the above example of Robin Jones the boy was allowed to leave when he asked politely to, although upon leaving he found that so much time had passed on earth that everyone he knew in life had died. In another story a boy was taken through a fairy ring and tried to leave later with a golden ball to show his mother; the fairies took the ball back and threw the boy out after pinching him until he was thoroughly bruised (Evans-Wentz, 1911). He re-emerged and returned home to his mother to find that several years had passed.

Several options were available for those seeking to rescue a comrade from a fairy ring. One Welsh method of securing a person's release was to place a stick of rowan across the boundary of the ring, breaking it (Gwyndaf, 1991). Some suggest throwing specific herbs, including thyme, into the circle, and of course iron is seen as superlative method of both disrupting a fairy ring and protecting oneself from angry Fey (Hartland, 1891). Any iron object would suffice and could be used to break the edge of the ring or could be tossed into the circle to disrupt the dancing. Another method was for someone safely outside the circle to reach in, sometimes by stepping on the perimeter of the ring, and grab the person as they danced past (Briggs, 1978). Even if they were rescued though many times the person could not truly be saved, and those who had danced with the fairies in a fairy ring were known to pine away afterwards or else, if they had been taken for a length of time and allowed to leave they might rapidly age or turn to dust when the truth of their long absence from mortal earth was revealed to them in their home place, then occupied by strangers (Brigg, 1978).

There is a strong belief that if one finds a fairy ring it should not be disturbed, not only because of the possible danger, but because there is a sacredness to the space set aside within them. If one were to damage a mushroom associated with a fairy ring reparations would be offered to avoid punishment (Bennett, 1991). In Scotland and Wales it was generally unthinkable by those who believed in the Good Folk to consider intentionally damaging the ring or mushrooms, and it was believed that those who did so would be cursed (Bennett, 1991; Gwyndaf, 1991). In one Irish story a farmer who knowingly built a barn on a fairy ring fell unconscious afterwards and had a vision telling him to take down the barn (Wilde, 1888).

Fairy rings are still found today although perhaps fewer people see the footsteps of the Fey in them, and more see the science of mycelium. In the spirit of tradition though it doesn't have to be one or the other but can both, in truth, and we can still see the enchantment and sacredness of the footsteps of the Good People in fairy rings without denying the knowledge of their natural cause. If you keep your eyes open and your sense sharp you may find a ring of dark grass or new grown mushrooms in your yard or the area you live in.
Although perhaps you'll think twice about stepping across its boundary.

Bennett, M., (1991) Balquhidder Revisited: Fairylore in the Scottish highlands, 1690- 1990
Briggs, K., (1978) The Vanishing People
Gwyndaf, R., (1991) Fairylore: Memorates and legends from Welsh oral tradition
Mushroom Appreciation (2016). Fanciful Fairy Rings
Evans-Wentz (1911) The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries
Wilde, E., (1888). Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms & Superstitions of Ireland
Hall, A., (2007). Elves in Anglo-Saxon England
Hartland, E., (1891). The Science of Fairy Tales

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Tomus tighe mec ind Ócc

Newgrange from the air. Office of Public Works (OPW), date unknown This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0

Tomus tighe mec ind Ócc

Tomus tighe mec ind Ócc,
fót cen bine buidnib sét,
etir dá fraigid rosícht,
mó secht traigid, mó secht cét.
Cethri dorais ind cen brón,
bith oc ól tria bitha sir,
turib ciprib, úair is caem,
cóel fo tuighib d'itib én.
Dabuch deargiubair mór lucht,
slóg óss a ucht cen nach socht,
suide fichet co ba secht,
coire cert ocht fichet torc.

Harleian MS 5280, fo 74a

The Measure of the House of Mac Ind Og

The measure of the house of [Aengus] Mac ind Óc,
a territory without fault, warrior band's treasure,
declared between its two walls,
more than seven feet, more than 700.
Four doors at the edges, without sorrow,
land engaged in revelry through all time,
towers of cypress, because they are fitting*,
wattling under thatching of bird's wings.
A vat of red yew-wood --great its contents--
A host over it, the interior without any rest,

The aforementioned twenty times seven cows
a proper cauldron [for] eight-score warriors*

*ciprib is actually a word of unknown meaning, but thought to relate to cipresus/cypress
also in this line caem could be read as beautiful rather than fitting/suitable
*literally 'boar'

Monday, July 11, 2016

Imram - A Poem

Like a shadow, shifting, seeking
what I've found yet still must find,
wrapped in motion, wrapped in time,
bound yet still compelled to bind
echoes like ripples of each action
as here and there merge in my mind
spirit balanced in the eager edges

Wandering the Otherworld is chancy
though the fairy road is always near
tempting and teasing and tangling
touching this to that, and there to here
a bare breath away, a whole world apart
pulled and pushed by hope and fear
I am compelled to turn and return again

I am on wings, flying, swiftly silent
eyes keen in the darkness of night
seeking what is waiting for me
someone found in shade and light;
I am a white hind in trackless woods
running, racing, sharp and bright;
illusions hold the truth of form here

The paths I walk are distant memories
the place I rest a long forgotten tale
my companion, fierce and fearsome,
so that, compared, I seem faint and frail,
there is music, sourceless, around us
and the moon, a lantern, clear and pale,
so painfully idyllic I look for thorns

Dark and dangerous this dreaming
like ground ivy, twining, creeping
intoxicating as sweet rowan mead
into my heart and mind softly seeping
leaving no corner or crevice empty
planting, tending, nourishing, reaping,
changing from the core to make anew

I feel it digging deep and deeper
wearing me away like water on stone
working relentlessly towards its goal
weaving through flesh, blood, and bone
strong its power, stronger its purpose
for in the most primal intent it was sown
and every wish comes with its cost

Days, or Years, or Decades, or Hours
time has no anchor here, it drifts
I am carried with its restless motion
turning and twisting as it all shifts
but I knew before I bargained that
they are clever when they give gifts
and I valued gingerbread over gold
  - M. Daimler, copyright 2016

Thursday, July 7, 2016


  In both Irish and Scottish fairylore 'elfshot' or 'elf arrows' are a type of small weapon used by the Good Folk, and in Scotland also by witches, against people and livestock. The ubiquitous weapons of the Fey, elfshot caused a variety of maladies to those struck by them.The arrows themselves when found on the ground are small, neolithic flint arrowheads but when used by the Gentry are invisible to mortal eyes as are the wounds they cause. Finding such a small piece of flint or primitive arrowhead lying on the ground might lead a person to believe they had found a fairy-dart (O hOgain, 1995) and indeed such arrows are occasionally found and thought to be significant and powerful, for good or ill.

In Scotland they were called 'saighead sith' [fairy arrows] and finding one on the ground was believed to bring a person good luck(McNeill, 1956). Indeed although being struck by one could be calamitous finding one was auspicious and it would be kept afterwards as a talisman. While some believed a found elf arrow should be thrown in water or buried lest it draw Otherworldly attentions, to others it was a powerful talisman, although it had to be kept covered from sunlight and not allowed to touch the ground again (Black, 1894; Wilde, 1888; Evans, 1957). It was believed in Scotland that elf arrows could not be found if a person was searching for one, but were only found by accident and usually in an odd or unexpected way (Black, 1894). This might include appearing in one's possessions or clothing after a walk outdoors or even in one's shoe. Lady Wilde however mentions the Irish belief that 'fairy stones' were often found near sí [fairy hills] lying on the ground, and ads no particular prohibition against intentionally looking for them. To posses an elf-arrow was good luck and they had magical uses as well, being used in cures for sick cattle as well as herbal charms (Wilde, 1888; Evans, 1957). There are several examples of found elfshot from Scotland that were set in silver and worn as pendants, because of the belief that they were protective talismans.

illustration from Black's book Scottish Charms and Amulets circa 1894, image public domain

When used as weapons by the Other Crowd elfshot was thought to be the direct cause of elf-stroke or fairy-stroke. This fairy-stroke could take the form of a sudden seizure or paralysis, cramping, pain, bruising, wasting sicknesses, and even death (Briggs, 1976). The most distinctive type of elfshot was a sudden, inexplicable shooting pain, usually internal (Hall, 2007). The fairies might use elfshot for anything from punishing someone for a minor offense, in which case the effect might be slight and temporary, to tormenting a person with great pain and suffering if they were truly angry. If they wanted to take a person they might use elfshot to paralyze them then switch the person with a changeling or a glamoured item like a log (Briggs, 1976). If they wanted to take cattle a similar procedure was used, where the animal was shot and would waste away and die, thus going to the fairies (O hOgain, 1995).

Witches as well as fairies were said to use elfshot, especially in Scotland. In several witch trials people confessed to using elfshot to harm others, and Isobel Gowdie in her confession claimed to have seen the shot being made when she was visiting among the fairies (Briggs, 1976). In her telling she said she had gone with the fairies and saw the Devil himself making the shot and handing it to 'elf boys' who sharpened them and prepared them. She claimed that they were then given to the mortal witches to be used with a short chant and that the shot was fired by being flicked off the thumb with a fingernail (Black, 1894; Briggs, 1976). In Ireland witches were not known to use elfshot, rather having a reputation for 'blinking' or putting the evil eye on cattle or people instead, but there were other similarities between Irish witches and fairies and it was said that witches learned from the fairies (Jenkins, 1991; Wilde, 1888)

"pair of prehistoric arrowheads (so called "elf arrows") set in silver used as a defense against witchcraft" Photo by user:geni usage rights: GFDL CC-BY-SA

Cures for elfshot varied. For people there are a variety of charms, drinks, and salves to be found in the old Anglo-saxon Leechbooks. Usually a person would be diagnosed with an elf related ailment, often involving sudden internal pain or an illness that was traditionally attributed to elves, then a cure would be prepared and given in conjunction with a chanted or spoken charm or prayer (Hall, 2007; Jolly;1996). For horses as well the Leechbook offers possible cures which involve a combination of actions, including shedding the animal's blood, and spoken charms (Jolly, 1996). For cattle the animal may be rubbed with salt water and made to drink a portion, given water that has both salt and silver in it, or rubbed with a found elf arrow which is believed to have curative powers (Black, 1894). One approach in Ireland was to spill a bit of the cows blood in a ceremony dedicating the animal to saint Martin (Evans, 1957). Often a specialist, a fairy doctor or wise woman [bean feasa], would be called in first to verify that a person or animal had been elfshot and if necessary to effect the cure (Jenkins, 1991). In some cases the effect of the shot was deemed permanent and could not be cured at all or the cure applied would not be strong enough to be effective. In some cases, tragically especially in relation to suspected changelings, the cure itself would prove fatal.

Elfshot by any of the many names it has gone by - elf arrows, fairy arrows, fairy darts, fairy stones, saighead sith - are fascinating items. Terribly dangerous if they strike a person or animal they are a fearsome weapon of the Good People. Their effects can be transitory or permanent and may be mitigated with magical charms and herbal cures, and ironically the same exact shot that causes the injury can be used to cure it when wielded by a well-intentioned human hand. As dangerous as elfshot can be if it strikes a person it is also a wonderful talisman to possess if you happen to find one - but only if you remember to keep it with proper care, away from sunlight and off the ground, lest the Good Folk come back to reclaim it.

McNeill, F., (1956) The Silver Bough
Briggs, K., (1976) A Dictionary of Fairies
Black, G., (1894) Scottish Charms and Amulets
Jolly, K., (1996) Popular Religion in Late Saxon England; elf charms in context
Hall, A., (2007). Elves in Anglo-Saxon England
O hOgain, D., (1995). Irish Superstitions
Wilde, E., (1888) Irish cures, Mystic Charms & Superstitions
Jenkins, R., (1991) Witches and Fairies: supernatural aggression and deviance among the Irish peasantry. Essay in 'The Good People'
Evans, E., (1957) Irish folk Ways