Search This Blog

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Fairy Etiquette

Consider this a bit of a crash course - or the cliff notes version - in fairy etiquette. Like anything else on this subject for every rule or guideline there's an exception (see my last blog on eating fairy food if you don't understand what I mean by that) but this offers the broad strokes. Before reading this its important to keep in mind that the Fair Folk in general are not humans and are not like humans; as Yeats would have it they have few unmixed emotions and are beings of extremes, both good and bad. Often what they do seems perplexing to us, sometimes capricious and sometimes cruel. We cannot approach this subject expecting them to be or do what humans would in any circumstance but we must look at the system they operate in as a guideline to understand their etiquette which is distinct from our own. For example, the Good People have no compunction at all about stealing from humans or harming humans, although we see in folklore that they do have some strict rules about humans doing those same things to them - it is not an equal playing board but one on which they have different sets of rules for themselves and for mortals. This must be understood to understand anything else about them.

So then this guide to etiquette is not so much about the etiquette of fairies among themselves, butof etiquette for humans dealing with fairies:

  1. Don't lie to the Good People - Fairies are always honest; in folklore and my own experience the Daoine Maithe don't lie but always speak the truth. I suspect this is why they can be tricked in ways we perceive as 'easy' sometimes, such as the story where the girl tells the Brownie in the mill her name is 'mise' [myself]*. Of course as I have mentioned more than once before this does not in any way keep them from tricking us by telling us nothing but the truth in ways that get us to assume a conclusion that is not true. Semantics is an artform of which they are masters. Because they do not lie they don't expect dishonesty from humans either and as you may imagine they react badly to being lied to.
  2. Keep your word - Building off that last one, should you ever be in the position to make a promise or take an oath to a member of the Othercrowd under no circumstances should you break your word. They don't grade on a curve for this one - a promise is a promise and an oath is an oath. Do what you say you will do. 
  3. Lending and Borrowing - It happens that the Good Neighbors do sometimes ask the loan of things from us, and it usually wise to give it. This can range from food to grain to items (usually household items or farm equipment).  They always repay their debts, most often with interest but not always in kind; for example there is a well-known anecdote about a man who lent the fairies wheat and was repaid with more than he gave but in barley. There are also stories of fairy mothers who ask a nursing human mother to let a fairy baby nurse just once from them in trade for a blessing; again this is considered good to do. Humans may also borrow from the Gentry but slightly more caution is required as folklore tells us that a deadline for re-payment is always set and must not be missed.
  4. The Issue of Wash Water - This one is a bit complex, but generally speaking, one should not throw dirty water on the ground without an audible warning first, to alert the fairies, and one should not pour such water out over a large rock, lest it be the abode of fairies. Fairies abhor filth and seem to have an especial hatred of dirty water and urine (both of which can be used as protection against them). There is also the matter of having dirty water standing in the home, something that was more common in the past when people would come in and wash their feet; this 'foot water' depending on the area of belief would either drive fairies away or conversely allow them entry into an otherwise protected home.  
  5. Gifts - If offered a gift it is wise to accept it and to offer something in return; however fairy gifts are rarely what the seem. That which seems valuable initially often turns out to be worthless and that which seems like nothing at first is often revealed to be quite valuable. Fairy gifts are also, as often as not, traps, and so great caution should be used with them. In many stories we see something given as a gift that does indeed bring luck or happiness to the person who receives it, but in others the item - particularly if it is food or drink - may act to trap the person or bind them to Fairy. Gifts are never straightforward. You really have to use your head here, because accepting them can be a good idea and refusing them can anger the fairies, but sometimes refusing them is the best choice. 
  6. Nothing is Free - Related to the subjects of lending/borrowing and gifts, try to keep in mind that nothing is free. Even gifts that are given as true gifts without hidden traps still come with obligations. Fairy is a very feudal system in that respect, everything is tied together through debts and obligations and what's owed to who. If you give to them then they owe you in return, even if that owing is paid back simply by not causing you mischief. If they give you gifts then gifts are expected in return. Reciprocity and obligatory return are the foundations of their society, at least in much of folklore and my experience. 
  7. Never Say Thank You - It is a widespread belief, although not ubiquitous, that one shouldn't say thank you to the fairies. I have heard one theory behind this, that it implies a debt to them, a blank check if you will, that would allow them to decide how you repay them. Another theory suggests it is dismissive and implies you feel superior to them. Whatever is the case you should try to avoid saying it. Offering a gift in exchange for something you feel you've received can be a good idea, or saying something else along the lines of expressing gratitude for what happened without saying thank you directly, such as 'I am so happy with ---' or 'I really appreciate ---'. 
  8. Silence - it is possible for a person to have the favor of the Other Crowd and to gain by it. However the fairies have a strict rule about a person not speaking of experiences or blessing they get from the Good People. I think this is why we have more negative stories than positive and why we have more stories of single encounters than multiple ones. A person can sometimes get permission to speak or to reveal things, but the general rule is that to keep their favor you must stay silent about their activity in your life. Those who brag about fairy blessings or gifts almost always lose them and the future possibility of them. 
  9. Privacy - Fairies really, really do not like being spied on or having their privacy invaded. Many stories in folklore involve a person who stumbles across the Good People doing their normal thing, is seen watching, and punished severely - in only a few cases does the person manage to talk their way out of any repercussions. Its a good idea to respect their places and to trust your instincts when you feel like you should or shouldn't go somewhere. If you do happen upon fairies it is probably best to stay quiet and hidden, and wait for them to move on, unless they make it clear from the start they know you are there. 

*This of course is key to her escape from his vengeful mother after she kills him, because when asked for the name of his attacker he can only repeat 'myself, myself'.

Further Reading:
Katherine Briggs, A Dictionary of Fairies 
W. B. Yeats, Celtic Twilight
W. Y. Evans-Wentz, The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries
Peter Narvaez (ed) The Good People: New Fairylore Essays
Eddie Lenihan & Carolyn Green, Meeting the Other Crowd


  1. fantastic points made! Thank you>

  2. I unfortunately interacted with some witch of Facebook who claimed all fairies were "evil" because of some negative experiences with them. I suspected right away she must have offended them.

  3. Anyhow, thank you for this quick guide

  4. This is so cool and interesting.

  5. Will they leave gifts such as baby animals? I've found quite a few in my yard with in a week. First a snake, then a bird, then a rabbit and now a puppy. Nothing can get into or out if the yard as I have a small chihuahua.