|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|
**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