Fairies and the Dead
The relationship and connection between the fairies and the dead is a complex one, and likely always has been. The human dead aren't fairies, except when they are. Fairies aren't the human dead, except when they might be. The places of the dead belong to the dead, except when those places are fairy mounds, like the neolithic tumuli. Even the Slua Si, whose name means 'fairy host', are sometimes said to consists of the spirits of human dead, as in some cases does the Wild Hunt, making it hard to draw any clear lines between the groups. In a very general sense we can say that human ghosts are not the same as fairies, but fairies can include people who were once human. The key difference may be, as we shall see, how exactly the human came to join the Fey.
There is some old Celtic belief, recorded by the Greeks and Romans, which hints at the idea of rebirth or reincarnation, that a person born in our world was dying in the Other World and a person who died in this world was born in the Other World. This idea, perhaps, explains the reason that fairies who wed mortal men were known to cry at births and laugh at funerals. It may also explain in some way why the Irish name for the Other World, an Saol Eile, literally means 'the Other Life'. It is not just another world in the sense of being a place, but it is also another life, another type of existence.
There is some suggestion that the initial depiction around the 16th century of fairies as small beings was actually related to the connection between fairies and the dead and the belief that human souls were small in appearance when separated from the physical body (Briggs, 1976). In turn this idea may reflects a related idea, that the soul was separate from the body and could leave it at times, either temporarily or permanently. We see this in the folktales were a person is taken by the fairies but their dead body is left behind and in anecdotes where a person goes into a trancelike state while their spirit is off with the fairies. The idea that the soul can be separated from the body and once separate has a reality and substance that can even be injured is an old one seen in multiple sources (Walsh, 2002). It may be difficult for us to grasp the idea of a soul as a tangible, physical thing when our modern culture tends to prefer the idea of souls as insubstantial and ephemeral but it’s clear that the older belief gave the soul substance.
Another level of entanglement is more straightforward, that is sometimes the Fairies are known to take people to join them and often these people were thought to have died. In a wide array of folklore from Ireland and Wales we see stories where a young woman is thought to die and is buried, only to be seen later among the fairies in one context or another. In at least one story it was a young man who died and was buried, only to have a fairy doctor tell his family that he was among the Other Crowd; when they attempted to retrieve him he appeared and begged to be allowed to stay with the people of the sidhe (Briggs, 1976). The Scottish witch Alison Pearson claimed a dead relative was among the fairies and that it was he who acted as her familiar spirit with them (Wilby, 2005). Getting back to the earlier point about the soul as a tangible presence we must understand that these are people with presence and physicality who were interacted with and who are clearly counted among the ranks of the fairy people.
In the book ‘Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries’ several anecdotes are related that connect the Good People directly to the dead, in both the sense of describing some fairies as being humans who have died as well as saying some of them are people who were taken and thought to have died. One person related a story about a woman who died and shortly after, before the body had been buried, her husband was visited by one of the Good People who told him she wasn’t dead but taken by the fairies; the husband then waited by the body with the door open and his wife came in to see her infant at which time he grabbed her (Evans-Wentz, 1911). After being restrained and struck with a charm he had prepared the wife returned to her body, as the story was related, which revived and she went on to live a long mortal life (Evans-Wentz, 1911). In another tale with a less pleasant ending a bride died at her wedding, only to appear to her new husband later and tell him that she was actually among the fairies and that if he went to a certain place he would see her passing by and could save her (Evans-Wentz, 1911). The husband went as she’d told him to but when he saw his bride among the fairies passing by he found himself paralyzed and unable to move to grab her; he never saw her again after that, but refused to re-marry (Evans-Wentz, 1911). The people interviewed in that section of the book, who were relating the beliefs of different areas of Ireland around the turn of the 20th century, also made it clear that there were fairies who were never human and had never been human, assigning them origins among the Fir Bolg and Tuatha De Danann, as well as saying they were fallen angels. There were also those among the human dead who could and did return as ghosts or other types of undead spirits that were not considered fairies.
|The entrance to Newgrange, sometimes called Bru na Si, known as a fairy mound, home of the Gods, and a neolithic burial place
The subject of the fairies and the dead is not a simple one, but it is clear that the two groups are intertwined. There are those beings who were never human spirits and those human spirits who are not and will not be fairies. But there are also those who were once human and are now fairies because the fairies themselves added the human to their ranks. The different layers of belief make it apparent that while there was crossover between fairies and the dead there was also distinction and separation of the two groups in other ways. If one could imagine it as a Venn diagram we would see fairies as one circle, the human dead as another, and the area where the two circles overlapped – how small or large that is no one can say for certain – would represent those who fall into both groups.
Briggs, K., (1976) A Dictionary of Fairies
Evans-Wentz, W., (1911). The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries
Wilby, E., (2005) Cunningfolk and Familiar Spirits
Walsh, B., (2002) The Secret Commonwealth and the Fairy Belief Complex
All text and images copyright Morgan Daimler