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Sunday, July 12, 2020

Fairy Help, Fairy Harm

Modern paganism, and perhaps more broadly mainstream Western culture, seems to constantly be trapped in a mobius strip argument about the potential help or harm caused by fairies. There is one side that argues, staunchly, that the Good Folk are entirely benevolent and benign to humans. In contrast there is another side that argues just as fervently that the Othercrowd should be entirely avoided and warded against because of the danger they represent. And then there's the people, like myself, who argue for a kind of middle ground that acknowledges the very tangible dangers but also the potential advantages to fairies. When in doubt however always act with caution and keep the risk in mind because there are serious and sometimes permanent consequences.

What I want to do here is look at the evidence we have for both sides in folklore. I think too often people, especially outside places that have maintained some degree of belief in these beings, rely entirely on their own personal experiences and perceptions. I'm not saying to ignore your own experiences of course but I am suggesting that one person's experiences don't a body of lore make. I have never drowned for example but I fully believe that people who go swimming may drown under various conditions - because I know that my personal experiences are not the sum total of the subject. Hopefully the following material will provide a wider view.

The Blessing
First let's look at a few examples of fairy help. These are harder to find in the source material and often come from folk tales rather than folklore, which should be noted. This may be because there have long been prohibitions in many cultures that believe in these beings that to brag or boast of the good they might do a human will result in that goodness being revoked. This extends to talking about a wide array of fairy interference in one's life including having a leannán sidhe [fairy lover] or learning from them. That all said:

  1. Healing physical maladies. This can include both illnesses and deformities. There is a very famous story, often repeated sometimes under the title of 'Lushmore', of a man with a hunchback in Ireland who was passing a fairy fort, heard the fairies singing, politely joined in and was reward by having his back healed. Several versions of the tale can be found on the site, but one example: "He heard the fairies singing - Monday, Tuesday. The man said Monday Tuesday and Wednesday. The fairies ran up to the man and asked him to teach them that song. The man taught them the song. The fairies asked him that gift die he want he said to take the hump off his back. The man went home without the hump." (Duchas, entry 453). 
  2. Help with work. There are accounts of fairies doing work for humans they like. Often there isn't any reason given to explain why they liked that person, as we see in this example: "This man was supposed to have something to do with the fairies. The fairies used to do all the work for him at night time." (Duchas, entry 246).
  3. Money - in one late 19th century story an Irish Fairy king helps a man about to be evicted pay his rent by giving him gingerbread made to look like gold. The man is told to get a receipt when he pays, which he does, so that when the gold turns back to gingerbread the next day he can't be held accountable. This story is inline with wider tales of fairies giving money or support to people they favour or take pity on.
  4. Removing curses. In the ballad of Alison Gross a man who has been cursed by a witch is rescued by the Queen of the Seely court who removes the curse. 
I have also had what I would describe as blessing experiences, including the apparently miraculous healing of my middle child's back deformity, and I do think it is important to understand that the Good Folk can interact in a positive way with people. The possibility of positive results however should not negate the dangers. 

The Dangerous
Now that we've established the Good Neighbours can be helpful let's look at a fraction of the evidence that they can represent risk to humans. I have seen some people try to argue that all of these examples are either propaganda from those antithetical to fairies or the result of people with the wrong mindset who expected bad and so got it. I want to say this as nicely as I can: the entirety of folklore and many, many people's modern experiences are not lies or wrong because a person doesn't happen to like the way they depict the Shining Ones. If we look beyond western Europe and the diaspora we can find a multitude of examples from other cultures, including those that are still non-Christian, of equally dangerous or ambivalent spirit beings. I am actually not aware of any culture that has only benevolent spirits in their belief system, so it strikes me as extremely odd to view fairies that way.
   In the below examples we will be looking strictly at direct harm caused to humans in the human world by fairies. One can argue that such things as fairy abductions and possession also qualify as harm but those topics are nuanced and deserve a fuller discussion than what we will be doing here.

  1. Causing deformities. In point 1 above I mentioned fairies straightening a man's back in a story; that story ends with another man similarly afflicted trying the same cure and getting twice the hunch on his back for his efforts: "The fairies did not like his song and instead of taking the hump off him they put the other man's hump on him and the man went home with two humps." (Duchas, entry 454). Briggs attributes anything that deforms or warps the human body to possible invisible fairy blows or injuries, particularly issues of the joints or spine. 
  2. Killing or sickening livestock. Fairies are very well known for afflicting domestic animals, especially cows. This was sometimes called 'elf-struck' or 'elf-shot' and may be marked by a mark or lump on the animal to indicate where it was struck (Narvaez, 1991). Accounts of this can be found in the archives describing the results: "Also we are told that fairies used to shoot cows, when the cows would "graze on a "gentle" spot. We call a place "gentle" when it is supposed to belong to fairies. A "shot" cow became weak and would not eat." (Duchas, entry 231).  
  3. Exhausting people nearly to death. There is another account on Duchas of a man who saw the fairies hurling in a field and went to join them only to be kept playing until he almost died of exhaustion. In folklore we find tales of fairies making people dance until they collapse or die. 
  4. They will kill you. There are many accounts of fairies physically harming or just directly killing people for offenses, so much so that Patricia Lysaght says "That physical disability or even death can result from interference with fairy property such as a rath is well attested in Irish tradition. Many examples are evident..." (Narvaez, 1991, p 45). These are often related to harm a human has done to a fairy place or fairy tree. However sometimes it's just because the person offended them by breaking the fairies' rules of etiquette, as in this example where death was threatened for trying to join a fairy song: "All the fairies went in to Harvey's fort, and they began singing and dancing and inside in the fort. One of the men had a fiddle and he began to play a tune the fairies were playing One of the fairies came out of the fort and told the man that if he played that tune again he would kill him and the man ran home as fast as he could." (Duchas, entry 75). Even into the 21st century there are stories of people dying after damaging fairy trees. 
  5. Blinding. The fairies are known to blind people, something that is found as a staple in the 'Midwife to the Fairies' stories where a midwife who accidently touches her eye with fairy ointment lets slip she can see them and is blinded or has her eye put out. An anecdotal account from late 20th century Newfoundland describes a man harrassed by faires who is eventually blinded by them (Narvaez, 1991). There is an account on the Duchas site of a fiddler who refused fairy food and was blinded in one eye by an angry fairy woman. 
  6. Tumours. Multiple accounts support victims of a fairy blast or fairy wind suffering from immediate and inexplicable swellings which are found to be tumours; there are also anecdotal accounts of people with these swellings where random objects like bones, grass, or straw are found inside them (Narvaez, 1991). 
  7. Madness or loss of cognitive abilities or speech. Anecdotal accounts from Yeats 'Celtic Twilight' to Narvaez's 'Newfoundland Berry Pickers in the Fairies' discuss the fairies driving people mad or taking away their cognitive function. Narvaez also discusses accounts of encounters which resulted in speech impairment and there are folktales of fairies taking a person's speech entirely something that is also discussed by Emma Wilby in relation to a Scottish witch who dealt with fairies.  
  8. Strokes - the term stroke for a cerebral accident or aneurysm comes from the term 'fairy stroke' or 'elf stroke' and the idea that a blow from the Good Folk could cause this physical issue. Briggs mentions this as a method used by the fairies to steal humans and livestock, but the concept behind it is also mentioned as kind of fairy punishment in 'The Good People' anthology. Paralysis is also attributed to fairy anger in some cases (Briggs, 1976). Alaric Hall discusses elf-shot at length in his book, and mentions its use on humans and animals as well as its usually permanent effects on a person. elf stroke in itself is a complicated subject and being shot by the fairies can have multiple effects on a person including many of the other issues listed here. 
  9. Bruising and Muscle Cramps - on the mildest end fairies are known to pinch, hit, and otherwise assault humans resulting in bruising and cramping (Briggs, 1976). The fairies are not averse to beating a person into cooperating as we see in an account by Wilby relating to a Scottish witch reluctant to do what the fairies were asking her; they are also not averse to beating a person because they want to as we find in an account on Duchas where a man who sees the fairies and acknowledges that he can see them is attacked and beaten nearly to death by them. 

I also want to include some anecdotal examples, both my own experiences and those that have been shared with me to demonstrate that this isn't all just old stories:

  1. Blindness - going temporarily blind for not doing what the fairies ask. 
  2. Madness - driving a person crazy to try to force compliance on an issue
  3. Physical marks - ranging from bruising to scratching
  4. Trying to Kill Someone - I have heard a few accounts of the Fair Folk causing serious bodily harm bordering on near death

Final Thoughts
There is a reason that all cultures which believe in the Good Neighbours have so very many protections against them and such caution in dealing with them.

Narvaez, P., (1991) The Good People: New Fairylore Essays
Duchas (2020); Fairies Retrieved from
Briggs, K., (1976) A Dictionary of Fairies
Hall, A., (2007) Elves in Anglo-Saxon England
Wilby, E., (2009) Cunningfolk and Familiar Spirits


  1. Exactly my thoughts, great article.

  2. Terrific article. I wonder - to what degree would you consider "The Dangerous" to be a moral issue, as opposed to an issue of, let's say, incompatible cultures/natures/etc.? How often do the Good Neighbors harm humans as a moral punishment for human trespasses, because of their own moral viciousness, or does it even make sense to think of them in those kinds of moral terms?