Search This Blog

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Selling Your Soul to the Fairies

Most of us are familiar with the idea of classical witches selling their souls to the Devil, but there is another concept we see as well in folkloric sources: a person selling their soul to the fairies. The implication in the wider narrative is that the soul is being pledged to the Queen of Fairy but it is rarely spelled out as such. This is usually done as a combination of a required renunciation of the person's previous faith and either a pledge of loyalty to the Good People or else a more formal agreement to give over one's soul to them, with the implicit understanding that ultimately one's loyalty then is owed to the Fairy Queen or King. We see this in examples from the Scottish witch trials where an agent of the Fairy Queen approaches a person and offers them things they would want, often good luck and success, in exchange for the person giving up Christianity and swearing loyalty to the fairies instead.

Cemetery, Kildare, 2016  copyright M Daimler 

The idea of a person selling their soul is seemingly ubiquitous in Christian accusations against early modern witches. It hinges on the belief that the soul could be offered by a person to non-Christian powers in exchange for worldly benefits to the person, with the understanding that this would cost the person their potential salvation within Christianity. Although most well known in relation to diabolism, this concept is seen as well in witchcraft trials relating to those who dealt with or worked with the fairies. Emma Wilby argues in her book 'Cunning folk and Familiar Spirits' that while we might be tempted to see the idea of selling the soul to fairies as a later Christian distortion of tradition it does reflect genuine beliefs surrounding those who dealt with fairies and the much older ideas in the culture that to deal closely with fairies was understood to represent accepting a fate bound to them (Wilby, 2005). These older fairy beliefs were likely vestiges of pagan practice, held over by the initial approach of the Church to fairies as beings that fell into an ambiguous area, but shortly before the witch hunts began in Scotland there was a shift in the ecclesiastical view to seeing fairies as more clearly demonic and including them, sometimes interchangeably, with the Devil and demons (Henderson & Cowan, 2007). This was a significant shift in perspective in Scotland, although we do not see a similar shift in Ireland where fairies remained in that grey area between good and evil, clearly outside of the main accepted belief system but persisting as powerful beings with connections to the dead and the pagan Gods.

At this point I think we need to look at exactly what we mean with the phrase 'sell your soul' and unpack the concept, particularly separating it from the embedded negative connotations. The expression is, of course, one that comes to us from a Christian context and implies trading one's soul, implicitly to a negative entity, in exchange for worldly benefits. However this idea hinges on the wider belief that one's soul has already been given to the Christian God and that selling your soul elsewhere is bad because it means giving up the benefits that would otherwise come from that God. But I think there's a valid argument that commitment to any God or religion is just as much of a 'sale' of the soul, in that one is committing oneself to that specific deity in exchange for specific benefits, and with an understanding that there are specific requirements one will have to live by. What makes selling your soul to the Devil, or the fairies, or pagan Gods, negative is more about perspective coming from one religion to another than anything else. Ultimately what we are discussing here is not that different from a person dedicating themselves into any religion, or to any deity, except that whereas the promises of Christianity hinge on the afterlife entirely the promises of the fairies involve both the mortal life and the afterlife.

Next I think we need to look at what we mean by 'soul'. This may sound simple but it's actually a bit more complicated because there isn't any clear agreement on what a soul actually is, or even if it is one holistic thing. For some cultures the soul is comprised of multiple parts which can be separated, while others see the soul as one unit, the animating force that inhabits the body. Generally in the older material when we see the soul discussed what is meant is the consciousness of a person that contains their personality; the words soul and spirit are used interchangeably. However even in the fairylore material we see the idea that a person can be away with the fairies, that a part of their spirit can be in Fairy while the rest of them remains here, hinting at the possibility that even this conscious soul can be divided or at least focused in two places simultaneously (Wilby, 2005, Evans-Wentz 1911). It is possible then that in any case where we see a person committing their soul to something or someone they are only pledging a part or aspect of the soul, possibly that which is is the unique personality, and that other parts may go elsewhere. I am not going to dictate to anyone how to view what a soul is, I will only say here that what we see discussed in the texts and folklore is something separable from the body which retains the essence of the person's character in life. When you pledge your soul and the time comes for that to be collected your body is left behind and it is this part of yourself that's taken*.

There is a formulaic approach to selling one's soul to the fairies which involves first renouncing your old religion or God and then overtly promising one's self to the new. This is not done spontaneously by an individual but usually at the specific request of the fairies or at the urging of a specific fairy, often the person's existing fairy familiar. Emma Wilby discusses this at length in chapter 6 of her book 'Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits'** mentioning examples from the  Scottish witch trials where we see the renunciation and promising pattern. This is not a a bargain that only favors the fairies, however, and we always see the person offered something valuable in return. Cunning woman Joan Tyrry claimed she learned her healing skill from the fairies; Jean Weir was given a small piece of wood by an envoy of the Fairy Queen which allowed her to spin unusually quickly and inexplicably fine quality yarn ; Bessie Dunlop was offered gear and goods (Wilby, 2005). It is worth noting that the narrative of selling the soul to the Devil is largely absent from English witchcraft trials (Gregory, 2013) and that such confessions and connections specifically to Fairy were unique to areas with strongly ingrained existing fairy beliefs and were notably absent in other places.

Renunciation - In these examples we find the fairies, usually through the intermediary of a fairy familiar sent to the person, asking for an explicit renunciation of the person's 'Christendom' and baptism, although there were also examples where they required the person to keep making a show of going to Church or even encouraged them to be sure they were adequately devout. There are also cases where the renunciation was implicit rather than explicit, such as we see with Alison Peirson, who was never asked to verbally renounce Christianity but was instead asked to agree to be faithful to a green-clad fairy that appears to her, in exchange for his good favor; her responding yes to his request was perceived as an implicit renunciation of her other religion (Wilby, 2005). In the cases of implicit renunciation a person agreeing to be faithful to or to act as an agent of the fairies - in effect skipping to step two - was viewed as carrying with it the inherent rejection of the person's previous pledges to any other faith.

Promising - After the person's previous religion or God was renounced they were required to pledge their loyalty to the fairies, usually in the form of a fairy familiar or envoy. Bessie Dunlop promised that she would be 'loyal and true to [her familiar Thom] in any thing she could do', and Alison Peirson swore to be faithful (Wilby, 2005). In one singular account Joan Willimot was asked to promise her soul to a fairy woman, which she did (Wilby, 2005). Those who made these oaths would later be taken to Fairy and presented to the Fairy Queen, or Queen and King, or at the least would be regularly urged to go to Fairy if they refused to leave this world. It is possible that this travel to Fairy marked the final sealing of this agreement, something that may be supported by Wilby's assertion that to travel to Fairy was to give one's soul, implicitly, to the fey folk for the time one was there. Those who had sworn loyalty to a fairy or to the fairies more generally would have fallen into the ultimate hierarchy of Fairy itself and owed their loyalty to the monarchs of the group they were dealing with.
In some cases the person might be formally presented to the Queen of Fairy, while in others, such as Isobel Gowdie, the Queen might give the person a gift from her own hand, or as in the case of Andro Man might have sex with the person (Wilby, 2005). All of these actions can be viewed as fully committing oneself - one's soul - to Fairy generally and to it's monarch specifically.

This renouncing and promising was sometimes noted to follow a specific ritual format where the person would place their hand on the sole of one foot, and place the other hand on the crown of their head (Wilby, 2005). This can be seen as a pledging of the person's entire self - of everything between one hand and the other - to the powers they are speaking to. This also shows an important difference from the similar soul selling ritual in diabolism which usually involved the person giving blood to the Devil, or later signing their name in blood.

It is clear that the common belief of the time was that those who dealt with fairies and went with them into Fairy, particularly if negotiation was involved, understood that their soul could end up in Fairy when they died (Wilby, 2005). This is not a surprising idea given how complicated the relationship is between the fairies and the dead; it was a well ingrained belief that sometimes a person who died had actually been taken into Fairy and we see a wide range of anecdotes supporting this. Reverend Robert Kirk was believed to have been taken by the fairies, possibly for writing too much about them (Briggs, 1976). Evans-Wentz in the 1911 text 'A Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries' includes several stories of people thought to have died in various manners who were then seen or believed to have become part of the company of Fairy. The idea then of consciously committing oneself to that fate wouldn't have seemed outlandish, especially for those who were dealing with fairies and were already aware that it was a possibility simply because of their existing interactions with the Otherworld. We don't see this explicit giving of the self or soul to the fairies in the Irish material but arguably we do see the implicit giving occurring, particularly with the witches and bean feasa who were said to have leanánn sí.

The final question that should perhaps be asked here, is why the Fair Folk would want to enter into these bargains. They offer practical advantages to the human in the human world in exchange for that person's sworn loyalty and for a commitment of the person to the fairies. These particular bargains are specific to the class of people later termed witches and cunning folk, so it is likely that there were specific reasons why these people were seen as desirable to the fairies, however in a wider sense the pattern of fairies taking people is well established. Looking at these stories gives an idea of why the Good People might want to take human beings, and ultimately the answer always comes down to pragmatic uses of one sort or another. In the more common stories the people taken were brides, young men, nursing mothers, babies, musicians, and people who were considered especially beautiful or well mannered. In some cases, such as the musicians, the person might only be taken temporarily to entertain the fairies with their skill. Some Irish witches and Fairy Doctors were said to have been taken by the fairies for a period of seven years before being returned to the human world with great knowledge and magical skill, while others were often known to be away with the fairies while still living in mortal earth, as we see of their Scottish witch counterparts. In most other cases however the taking was permanent and the person's fate might be less pleasant, with various forms of servitude and use as breeding stock being common and sacrifice, such as in the Lowland fairies teind to Hell, not being unheard of.

Ultimately when we consider the evidence for people dedicating themselves to the fairies through transactions which involved an explicit or implicit renunciation of the previous faith and pledging of loyalty to the Good People, we see what amounts to the conversion to a new religion. Although couched in negative terms because these narratives come to us from a religion that saw these fairies as evil spirits and was being repudiated by these witches and cunning folk, the actual pattern followed and promises involved are little different than those of any person converting from one religion to another. The only major difference, and the most significant, is that the world of Elphame is no land of eternal bliss and rest for the soul but another life entirely, and the fate of the soul once there was not necessarily positive, although no religion necessarily guarantees an entirely positive afterlife.

Hylas and the Nymphs, Waterhouse, public domain
*Generally anyway. In the vast majority of examples the physical body is left behind and the spirit goes to Fairy and is transmuted there, however there are some anecdotal examples where the body is also taken. For brevity I am only focusing here on the soul and situations where the soul is being taken; for a more thorough discussion of wider examples see changeling lore.
**Wilby also discusses later 19th and 20th century Scottish examples were a practitioner might make an agreement with fairies for a specific amount of time; in these cases the deal is not a permanent pledging of the self but a temporary partnership. In these later examples the terms were agreed in a contract with the Good People offering specific services or knowledge in exchange for payments, and with the terms lasting for a prescribed period of time (Wilby, 2005).

Wilby, E., (2005) Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits
Evans-Wentz, W., (1911) The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries
Briggs, K., (1976) A Dictionary of Fairies
Henderson, L., Cowan, E., (2007) Scottish Fairy Belief
Gregory, A., (2013) Rye Spirits: Faith, faction and fairies in a seventeenth century English town

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Fairy Taboos - # 1 Saying Thank You

I'd like to do a series focusing on specific geasa, or taboos, that relate to how humans interact with fairies. These are things that you either should do or should never do when dealing with the fey folk. I'm hoping that doing this as a series of shorter posts might be more engaging for readers and make the points easier to remember than having a wall of information thrown at you.

I thought it would make sense to start with one of the ones that I tend to mention almost everytime I teach anything relating to the Good People - never say thank you. This is also one of the hardest ones for many people to get used to, especially if you have had it ingrained in you to always say thank you.

I have to be honest, I don't remember where I learned this one. I have wracked my brain but I can't remember where I may have read it or who might have told me about it originally. As far back as I can remember it has just been a rule I lived by: you speak politely and you never say thank you. When I initially tried to track down where I'd heard it and came up empty I started to wonder if I'd made it up, however further research did provide some validation.

Anecdotally I have met a variety of people across demographics who share this prohibition, not only with strictly Celtic fairies but also with less clearly culturally defined one. I also found a reference in Katherine Briggs Dictionary of Fairies to this taboo. This is something that we can see directly with some specific fairies like brownies and pixies who will become enraged if thanked verbally.

Why is this a taboo? It is hard to say as folklore offers no clear explanation, but we can offer a few suggestions. One school of thought is that saying thank you implies that the Daoine Uaisle are in some way lesser than you and serving you, which offends them - and is why they react with anger. Another thought is that saying 'thank you' is seen as acknowledging a debt owed, and it is never a good idea to owe an unspecified debt to any of the Good People. It is also possible that saying thank you, or overtly acknowledging what They have done for you, is problematic because they prefer not to have that sort of attention or focus on themselves.

What then is one to do if one feels the Other Crowd have done something helpful or kind? Briggs suggests that, "no fault can be found with a bow or curtsy" (Briggs, 1976, p196). I have found that a gift returned for a gift works well, as does a general expression of gratitude for the event or item itself (not the giver). Saying things like 'I am so glad that this worked out this way' or 'I am so happy that this is here' for example.

Briggs, K (1976) A Dictionary of Fairies

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Embracing Joy in Spirituality

I talk often, I know, about the work that goes into my spirituality - and I think that's fair enough because it is work and we shouldn't underestimate that. But there's joy in what we do as well, or their should be, its just easier often times to focus on the effort instead of the fun.

When I first began on my spiritual path I think I had the idea that it would all be fun and adventure, that witchcraft was a plunge into the numinous every few minutes - and that the numinous was always a good feeling. As time went on of course I realized that this wasn't the case, that spirituality is as often frustrating as it is fulfilling, that it can be rewarding but it can also be real work. I also realized that the numinous can be take-your-breath-away-scary just as much as it can be ecstatic. Sometimes it's both at once.

As time goes on though I found that it was easy to start focusing more and more on the work and the effort, and the joy got lost sometimes. There are, as the saying goes, dark nights of the soul and there are also points I think were we get so caught up in what we are trying to build or connect to that we lose sight of why we are doing it. Trying to make our ritual perfect eclipses being in the moment of the ritual itself. Trying to get every detail of a spell correct obscures that feeling of being surrounded by magic. Trying to invoke and connect to Gods or spirits becomes such an overwhelming focus that experiencing those same Gods and spirits when they show up gets lost.

It's easy to forget as we go along and our spirituality becomes more challenging or more tedious that it's also supposed to be enjoyable. It is work and effort but it's also joy and ecstasy. We seem to lose that over time, or at least I know that I can struggle with it. I overthink things, and I can take things too seriously if they matter a lot to me. Which means that with my religion and my magic it's easy for me to get so caught up in the need to do it well as an aspect of offering it to the Gods and spirits that I forget to enjoy it in the moment.

One of my best memories of a ritual happened about 20 years ago. A few friends and I were doing a Lughnasadh ritual at one of my friend's houses, and that friend had a daughter who was around three. All the adults were trying to be very serious, making sure we had all the stuff together, deciding who would handle what, and all that. And we get going and it's a good enough ritual, very by the book 'pagan standard', but when we get to making offerings the little girl takes her share of the bread we had to offer and starts skipping around the space, tossing bits of bread very enthusiastically into the air to share with the spirits. It was adorable, and everyone started laughing; then the adults started doing it too. The whole energy changed from somber to light hearted in an instant.

Ultimately spirituality is about both effort and enjoyment. We should work at what we are doing so that we can be good at it, and we should take what we are doing seriously, but it shouldn't all be serious and it shouldn't all be work. There should be joy and enjoyment in there as well. I often say, and it's true, that my spirituality has its share of blood, sweat, and tears but it also has laughter and has layers of ecstasy. Not in balance, but in turns and shifts and unexpected moments. And those moments of joy are invaluable and are just as important to my spirituality as the effort and study and practice.

Don't stop doing the work, but never forget to have fun along the way.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Excerpt from 'Travelling the Fairy Path'

I have a new book coming out in September of this year, called 'Travelling the Fairy Path' so today I'd like to offer an excerpt from it. Its going to focus on the more experiential side of my own spirituality but it also includes some discussion of things I've learned from the folklore, with a chapter on the ballad material. This excerpt is from that chapter. 

The Queen of Elfan’s Nourice [the Queen of Elfland’s Nurse]
The Queen of Elfan’s Nourice is the story of a human woman taken by the Queen of Fairy to be a nursemaid. It gives us a unique look at one of the common reasons that the Fey folk were known to take new mothers, from the mother’s point of view. [I'm including the complete ballad below with the language updated to modern English].

I heard a cow low, a bonnie cow low,
And a cow low down in yonder glen;
Long, long will my young son weep
For his mother to bid him come in.
I heard a cow low, a bonnie cow low,
And a cow low down in yonder fold;
Long, long will my young son weep
For his mother to take him from the cold.
       * * * * *
'Waken, Queen of Elfland,
And hear your nurse moan.’
‘O moan you for your meat,
Or moan you for your money,
Or moan you for the other bounties
That ladies are want to give?’
‘I moan not for my meat,
Nor moan I for my money,
Nor moan I for the other bounties
That ladies are want to give.
But I moan for my young son
I left at four nights old.
‘I moan not for my meat,
Nor yet for my money,
But I mourn for Christian land,
It’s there I gladly would be.’
‘O nurse my child, nurse,’ she says,
‘Till he stands at your knee,
And you’ll win home to Christian land,
Where glad it’s you would be.
‘O keep my child, nurse,
Till he goes by the hand,
And you’ll win home to your young son
You left at four nights old.’
       * * * *
‘O nurse lay your head
Upon my knee:
See you not that narrow road
Up by yon tree?
       . . . . .
That’s the road the righteous goes,
And that’s the road to heaven.
‘And see not you that broad road,
Down by yonder sunny hill?
That’s the road the wicked go,
And that’s the road to hell.’
(modified from Child, 1898)

The ballad opens seemingly from the human woman’s point of view, as she talks about how long her son will cry over her loss. The next verse picks up with the Queen of Elfland being awoken by someone telling her that her nurse is weeping; the Queen then asks if the nurse is hungry, wanting to be paid or wanting some other small gift. The nurse replies that she wants none of those things but is crying for her baby son who she left as a newborn and for mortal earth. The Queen replies that if she nurses the Fairy Queen’s son until he ‘stands at [her] knee’ and ‘goes by the hand’ – one may assume is walking on his own – then she will be returned to her own son. Then, as we saw previously in the ballad of Thomas the Rhymer, we see the Queen comforting the nurse by telling her to lay her head on the Queen’s knee and showing her a vision of two roads, one to heaven and one to hell. Obviously since they are already in Fairy she doesn’t show her a third road, perhaps not wanting to show her the way to escape back to mortal earth.
It is interesting that we see here again the idea of the different roads or paths and that again they are being shown to a mortal by the Fairy Queen herself. In Thomas the Rhymer this vision was called a ‘wonder’ and it was also used to soothe a person who was upset. To me this indicates that the idea of the roads has some significance worth considering. In both poems the road to heaven is described as the less attractive and more difficult and the road to Hell is more pleasant looking and ‘broad’.

The Queen of Elfan’s Nourice is a more obscure poem but it is valuable because it shows us another side of dealing with the Fairy Queen and fairies more generally. The new mother has been taken by the Fey folk but her unhappiness does seem to matter to them and the Queen makes some attempt to comfort her, although at no point is her freedom immediately offered. She is however promised that when certain conditions are met, in this case nursing the Queen’s child for a specific period of time, she will be returned to mortal earth and her own child. There is also the implication in the Queen’s words, asking the nurse whether she is moaning about money, food, or gifts, that imply she was willing to pay for the services in other ways as well. Only when the nurse explains that she doesn’t want those things but is upset about her baby son and her home is she offered her eventual freedom. This however suggests that negotiation is an option even with the Fairy Queen. 


Travelling the Fairy Path will represent the third, and I anticipate final, book in my Fairy Witchcraft series.