Recently the subject of fairies and marriage was brought up in a discussion, with someone suggesting that fairies would have no such concept as 'marriage' and that there were no accounts of marriage either of fairies or between fairies and humans. Since I'm not sure how pervasive that idea is I thought the best approach would be to address it here and discuss the layers of folklore involved - I'll note though that I will be sticking to the context of folklore and nor branching into modern esoterica (which is related). I'll also note before we jump in that I'm going to take a two pronged approach here and address fairies as a specific group through mostly folklore and literature and secondarily the wider subject of the Good Folk across Western Europe. The waters get muddy here as the term fairy often has an ambiguous use in the source material so I am choosing to cast a wide net.
First I suppose we must define marriage for the purposes of this article, so in this context we will be using the term to describe a committed relationship between two specific beings in which they or the narrator either explicitly use the term married or use the terms 'husband', 'wife', 'groom', 'bride', etc.,. This relationship may or may not be monogamous and may or may not be permanent*, but is marked by the specific language used to describe it in the sources.
Evidence of fairies getting or being married to other fairies as well as marrying humans can be found across folk belief. As Gibson rightly puts it "One of the commonest features of fairy mythology is the marriage between a human-being and a fairy" (Gibson, 1955). It is a folklore motif called the 'fairy bride' although we also find human brides with fairy grooms. Many families claim ancestry that traces back to fairies or other specific types of Otherworldly beings, both through marriage and without it, and stories of fairy spouses can be found across Europe.
Fairies marrying fairies is usually a detail mentioned within a wider story, and we are rarely given any profound insight via folklore into the practical aspects of this concept. Often marriages between species don't last and just as often they end badly, usually through an action on the human's part, however there are some accounts of cross-species marriages that do end well, often with the human going into the world of Fairy. Below I will share a series of examples that illustrate these points.
Marriage Among Fairies
- In van Zatzikhoven's 12th century 'Lancelet' we are told a story of the Arthurian knight Lancelot who weds the fairy Iblis. She remains his faithful wife after he leaves her and he marries another and she accepts him back when he returns, after which the two have four children together. The story is German, based on French sources (at least allegedly) of British myth. One might note that Lancelet while human was fostered by the fairy Lady of the Lake so did have pre-existing ties to the world of Fairy before meeting Iblis.
- Shakespeare's Oberon and Titania are described as the King and Queen of Fairyland together, refer to each other as 'my lady' and 'my lord' and are if not outiright said to be married, heaviliy implied in context to be so.
- in 'Ogier the Dane' Ogier is a human who is given six blessings by the fairies at his birth, the sixth of which is the love of a fairy woman. The end of the story finds him finally accepting her love and her offer of immortality as he goes of with her to Avalon
- an anecdotal account from the Orkneys mentions a man who fell asleep on a fairy hill and was awakened by a beautiful fairy woman who he took as his wife. He already had a human wife but that didn't appear to be an issue. The man and his fairy wife had three daughters together. (Towrie, 2022)
- Duachas.ie contains an account of a fairy wedding, the story going that a human man was on his way home when he met a fairy man who invited him in to a fairy fort, saying they were celebrating a wedding. The man entered and saw 'the fairy bride' playing music on a golden harp (Duchas v1003 p 309)
- In most iterations of the 'fairy midwife' stories (which is indeed a motif in itself) the woman who the midwife is called to assist and who the fairy man calls his wife is recognized as a human woman thought to have died or gone missing.
- Lady Wilde recounts the tale of a young man who was taken into fairy and whose family hired a specialist, a fairy doctor, to recover him. after a week of effort the young man's spirit was said to appear before a crowd, summoned by the fairy doctor, and he asked to be left where eh was with his fairy bride.
Marriage Among The Good Neighbours
- in the Welsh tale of the Physicians of Myddfai a human man succeeds in courting and marrying a Gwairg Annwn, or lake maiden, although as we are told her agreement has a catch: "and after some persuasion she consented to become his bride, on condition that they should only live together until she received from him three blows without a cause". the two are happily married for years until he does, indeed, give her three blows without cause and she disappears back into the lake.
- In Irish mythology the human** protagonist Fionn finds and marries a woman of the sidhe named Sadb, although she is later turned into a deer
- In folklore its said that Fionn and Sadb's son, the half-sidhe/half-human Oisín was taken to Tír na nÓg by the sidhe woman Niamh; the two married according to popular versions of the tale and had two children before Oisín left to return to Ireland
- The ballad of the Elfin Knight tells the story of a young girl who hears an elf blowing his horn on May Day morning and wishes to have him for herself. When he appears in her room her fairly quickly proclaims that she is too young to marry him. Later in the ballad he says that he has a wife already.
- In Thomas of Erceldoune Thomas's Queen of Elfland is married to the King of Fairy (or the Devil depending on the version).
- Selkies are well-known to have relationships with humans although the male selkies are less commonly said to marry. Female selkies however feature prominently in stories as seal-wives who marry a human fisherman after their sealskin is stolen by him.
- Grimm relates a tale form southern Sweden of an elf woman who entered a house and became the wife a man living there and bore him four children before disappearing back as she'd come.
Looking at the evidence there are some general conclusions we can reach, besides the fact that fairies do indeed marry both other fairies and sometimes humans. Firstly marriage for fairies seems to have roughly the same purpose as for humans, either a commitment based in love or a union to achieve a goal (often reproduction). Also as with humans marriage for fairies is a diverse and varied concept that we see including both fidelity (the Elfin Knight didn't want another lover as he already has a wife) as well as what we may term ethical non-monogamy (the Orkney anecdote) and infidelity (Thomas the Rhymer). We also find examples of both happy marriages (Niamh and Oisín) as well as unhappy ones (selkie wives). Secondly marriage for fairies, unlike for humans, seems a much more contractual and reciprocal affair even when love is involved; fairies operate with distinct rules which they must follow even when they don't want to. An example of this might be the man who married the Lake maiden - while the marriage seemed happy and loving she warned him she would leave if he struck her needlelessly three times and when that happened she did so. Similarly we see in some accounts of selkie wives the idea that they did love their human husband but once the sealskin is found they must leave even if they don't want to; these are the stories where the selkie lingers as a seal and helps the husband fish. It is likely these prohibitions and rules reflect an effort by the fairy to equalize the relationship, to bridge the power gap between themselves the human, by putting a requirement on the human to prove their dedication (Spyra, 2020). It is also possible that this is simply an aspect of fairy marriage and applies equally to marriage between fairies. We see a range of such prohibitions across stories from the aforementioned three strikes, to the human not being allowed to speak of the fairy to others, to the hidden sealskin. Gibson also notes that human-fairy marriages usually include specific features including a reluctance on the part of the fairy, prohibitions given by the fairy, and a taking back of anything given by the fairy, including children, when she leaves (Gibson, 1955).
To conclude, I hope this short article has demonstrated the pervasiveness of this concept across folklore, even if with only a few examples, and offered some thoughts on the concepts around marriage and fairies in folklore.
Cooper, H., (2006) Lancelot's Wives, Arthuriana vol 16 no 2 Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/27870759
Briggs, (1967) The Fairies in Tradition and Literature
Spyra, P (2020) The Liminality of Fairies: Readings in Late Medieval English and Scottish Romance
Ogier the Dane (2022) William Morris Archive 'Introduction to Ogier the Dane' Retrieved from http://morrisarchive.lib.uiowa.edu/introduction-ogierthedane
Gibson, H., (1955) The Human-Fairy Marriage Retrieved https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0015587X.1955.9717488?journalCode=rfol20
Jones, M., (2022) The Physicians of Myddfai Retrieved from https://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/myddfai.html
Wood, J., (1992) The Fairy Bride Legend in Wales Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/1261034
Child, F., (1882) The English and Scottish Popular Ballads vol 1 - 5
Thomas Off Ersseldoune (1997) Thomas the Rhymer Appendix Retrieved from http://www.tam-lin.org/library/thomas_text.html
Towrie, S., (2022) Mansie O'Kierfa and His Fairy Bride Retrieved from http://www.orkneyjar.com/folklore/fairicks/kierfea.htm
Grimm, J., (1888) Teutonic Mythology
A Fairy Wedding (2022) The Schools’ Collection, Volume 1003, Page 391 retrieved from https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/5070798/5065014/5100207
*in this it differs not at all from human marriage
**in fairness Finn may not have actually been human but he is presented as such in most of the stories