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Thursday, November 17, 2016

Fairies, Witches, and Dangerous Magic

When many people think of the classical image of the witch it comes with the implicit shadow of the Devil looming over it and an inherent sense of danger. When the folklore is studied in Scotland and Ireland, however, it is not cloven hooves and hellfire that mark many witches but the touch of Fairy and interaction with the Otherworld that made them what they were, and for some of us what we are still. But people are right nonetheless to associate this kind of fairy-touched witchcraft with dangerous magic, the sort that up-ends social orders and defies the status quo, the sort that runs wild under the night sky singing to itself of madness and mystery, the sort that seeks to give power to those who society sees as powerless. And that sort of magic is without a doubt dangerous, because it is boundless and unrestricted by what Yeats called (in another context entirely) "the nets of wrong and right".

A modern Fairy Witchcraft altar for Samhain

From a traditional point of view the cunningfolk and wise women(1) worked with the right order and helped the community, but the witch worked against that order - and so did the fairies. Witches might steal a cow's milk, or stop butter from churning, or take a person's health, or a family's luck - and so might the fairies. Elfshot was wielded by the Good People, but it was also used by witches. Witches might take the form of hares to travel the countryside - and so might fairies.  A witch's purpose was often personal, instead of communal, and might seem inexplicable to their neighbors, in the same way that the Other Crowd seemed to operate with their own concerns in mind, regardless of the human community. The witch defied the social order, retaliating against offenses and taking actions to ensure their own success and prosperity instead of that of the greater communal good, a good that often enough was at odds with the witch's own interests, exactly as people might view the Good Folk acting for their own good over human interests.

Isobel Gowdie said that it was from the Fair Folk that she and the other witches got elf shot and by some accounts it was from the fairies that Biddy Early obtained her famous blue bottle. Alison Pearson, a confessed witch from Scotland, said that she learned her knowledge of herbs and herbal cures from the fairies, and I have previously discussed the claims by some historic witches that they were given familiar spirits from Fairy. The idea of witches gaining knowledge from Otherworldly sources is an old one, and in itself an idea that threatened the proper order, because things taught to people by the Gentry were inherently out-of-bounds and in defiance of a system that sought to regulate and control information and education. The Other Crowd give people weapons to fight against other humans - elfshot, Otherworldly arrows that humans cannot generally even see to defend against; they give herbal knowledge which provides magical cures in defiance of established medicine; they give visions of what is and what may be to help a witch find lost items and predict the future(2).

Along these lines when questioned a variety of witches in Scotland claimed to serve not the Devil but the Queen of Elphen or Elfhame, saying that it was this Queen who they would be brought to visit and who they served in some capacity. We can perhaps see echoes of this concept in ballads like Tam Lin or Thomas the Rhymer; in the first Tam Lin is a mortal who is taken to serve the Queen of Fairies, apparently by guarding a well at Carterhaugh, and in the latter Thomas is taken by the Queen of Elfland to serve her for seven years in an unspecified manner before being returned to the mortal world. In the case of witches it was a very literal defiance of social order, where the witch's ultimate allegiance was to no earthly person or heavenly power (by Christian standards) but to the monarch of the Otherworld itself, usually bound by formal pledges or oaths and by a renunciation of mortal order in the form of the Church.

In the examples we have of historic witches associated with fairies, whether we look at those brought to trial or those renowned in more positive ways, we most often see people who were otherwise socially powerless or limited by the society of their times. People who were poor, marginalized, struggling, even victimized by the social order. Scottish witch Bessie Dunlop claimed that she made her pact with the fairies when her husband and child were desperately ill, for example. Sometimes, as in the cases of Biddy Early or Alison Pearson, the practise of magic and of dealing with the fairies seemed to be directly related to a major life change; the death of her husband in Biddy Early's case, and an illness in Pearson's. Both arguably directly impacted the person's social status and ability to fend for themselves within their society, and both arguably gained status from their fairy-related practises, although Pearson was eventually caught up in Scotland's witchcraft persecutions. Witchcraft, ultimately, was and still should be a way for people to gain or re-gain control of their own lives.

The Other Crowd are dangerous and unpredictable in many ways, and so can witches be, which is what we see when we look at history; because anyone who worked outside of what was deemed the proper social order was a wild card as far as that social order was concerned. In Old Irish the Good Folk are called 'túathgeinte', literally leftwards or northwards people, with túath having connotations of evil, wicked, and of motion to the north instead of the luckier and more beneficent rightward/southward motions. In exactly the same context we have the words túathaid - person with magical powers - and túaithech - witch, or magic worker. In both cases the concepts are directly linked with the idea that dessel, with the sun, righthandwise, was lucky and fortuitous while túathal or túathbel, against the sun, lefthandwise, was unlucky and related to ill-luck and confusion. Both fairies and some witches(3) then went against the right order, turning against the sun instead of with it.

The magic of the Good Neighbors that was taught to these witches - what I in modern practice call Fairy Witchcraft - was about empowering the powerless and giving the witch a way to meet their own needs and to ensure their own safety. It was knowledge and magic that removed the person, to some degree, from human society and this removal made them dangerous because it realigned their allegience in unpredictable ways. This is magic that is meant to effect real change for the benefit of the witch, not necessarily for some nebulous greater good. There was - is - a cost, of course, because there is always a cost in dealing with Themselves, and sometimes that cost was heavy. But it gave and gives hope to people who were suffering and hopeless, and offers control to those who otherwise are at the mercy of others.

Walking with the sun, righthandwise, is trusting the system, whether that system is religion or something else, to bless you and take care of you because you are walking the expected way, the well-worn way. Walking against the sun, lefthandwise, is taking your fate in your own hands and disrupting that system, going against that order; it is walking with the Other Crowd into danger and uncertainty because you believe ultimately the knowledge you gain there is the greater blessing. Fairies and witches have a long history together, and it is all dangerous magic. 
Which is exactly as it should be, because dangerous magic gets things done in the end.

"Come, heart, where hill is heaped upon hill,
For there the mystical brotherhood
Of hollow wood and the hilly wood
And the changing moon work out their will."

 - W. B. Yeats, 'Into the Twilight'

1 understand however that these terms are fluid and one person's cunningman was another person's witch, perspective being everything in these cases.
2 not that the Brahan Seer was a witch, necessarily, but some stories do say that it was from the fairies he got his famous seeing stone, and certainly some say that Biddy Early could look into her blue bottle and see things.
3 there are multiple words in Old Irish that mean witch, and it should be understood that túaithech is only one and has particular connotations not seen in the others. I have discussed this in a previous blog 'Nuances of the word 'Witchcraft' and 'Witch' in Old Irish'

Further Reading:
Tam Lin (1997) Child Ballad 39A
Harvard Classics (1914) Volume 40: Engish Poetry I: from Chaucer to Gray
Linton, E., (1861) Witch Stories
Pitcairn, R., (1843) Ancient Criminal Trials in Scotland, vol 1, part 3
Wilby, E., (2010). The Visions of Isobel Gowdie
Gregory, A., (1920) Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland
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
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

Daimler., M (2014). The Witch, the Bean Feasa, and the Fairy Doctor in Irish Culture. Air n-Aithesc, vol 1 issue 2, Aug. 2014


  1. As someone with some modest exposure to Tantric traditions in support of the all powerful dakini Vajrayogini, I am intrigued by the emphasis on left-handedness in the "tuath" words, for that is also the way of that particular tantric practice. In my own research about the Silk Road transmission of ideas from China, Tibet and other parts of Asia which eventually permeated European culture, especially in the evolution of alchemy and the pursuit of science, I have also noticed that it is often a rejection of the feminine traits and values, the "sinister" aspects (ie left sided), that get hived off as undesirable, and later "unprofessional." Sandra Harding writes about this along the way in her own work about feminist science. I wonder if you have any thoughts about these interconnections beyond what I have quickly sketched out here?