In my last piece I established that marriage was a common feature of stories involving fairies but today I'd like to look at some patterns we can note within that wider concept particularly of the Good Folk marrying humans. I think this can help us further explore the idea of marriage with the Othercrowd and may be useful both for those with an esoteric bent as well as those writing fiction who look to folklore as a source.
As with the previous article I will be using the word fairy here somewhat loosely, in line with the material itself, and will also be looking at relevant examples from related folklore of other types of Otherworldly beings, such as that of selkies. Also as with the previous article I will be focusing on the folklore and mythology rather than modern anecdotal or esoteric experiences, which fall outside the purview of this particular piece.
|illustration by Warwick Goble|
Two types of Marriage
Looking across the folklore one thing that quickly becomes evident is that marriage with fairies can be broken down into two rough categories: forced marriages and voluntary marriages.
Forced marriages occur both when a human captures an Otherworldly being and when a human is captured although generally it is a woman being captured no matter which version is in play. The Stolen Bride motif is based on the idea of a human woman being taken by an Otherworldly suitor to be married in the world of Fairy (see Briggs Fairies in Tradition and Literature) for example and can be found across both folklore and anecdotal accounts. The human woman is usually thought to be dead by her family but sometimes is able to communicate with a relative or her husband - if she were already married - and may or may not subsequently be rescued. In the case of a fairy woman being taken as a spouse they are usually trapped in some way so that they cannot return to their own world and must marry the human who trapped them; selkies having their sealskins stolen, for example, or Maran who could be trapped if the knothole she entered through was blocked (Ashliman, 2005). In both those examples the Otherworldly wife would immediately flee her human husband if she found a way to undo the magic holding her - the selkie must find her hidden sealskin and the mare must find and unblock the knothole through which she'd entered. A human taken and married into the Otherworld can only hope for one chance at rescue, usually during a fairy procession through the mortal world, and if that fails is trapped forever with their new spouse. We do see at least one example, in the ballad of the Elfin Knight, of a human woman (or girl) who tries to trap an elf into marriage; although she ultimately fails it does suggest that there were cases involving men as the captured spouse.
Voluntarily marriages, similarly, occur with both combinations of partners. In the Echtra Nera and the Echtra Condla we see human men who gain fairy wives with the consent of the wife; in Connla's case the fairy woman goes to great lengths to convince Connla to return to her world with her, while in Nera's case the fairy wife is given to him by a fairy king but nonetheless seems to be happy with the situation. There is also an anecdotal account in Lady Wilde's work of a young human man taken by the sidhe who refuses to be rescued because he is happy with his fairy wife. The Welsh tale of the Physicians of Myddfai features a Lake Maiden who chooses to wed a human man after he successfully courts her and the Orkney tale of the Great Silkie of Sule Skerry tells of a human woman who weds a selkie man. In Jean d'Arras tales of Melusine we see both Melusine and her mother Perryne choosing to marry human men out of apperant affection for them. In these cases both partners are willing participants in the marriage through choice not coercion and often seem to feel some genuine love for the other person within the context of the story.
How This Happens
How a human gets into a marriage with a fairy across the folklore generally occurs in one of three ways: the human is compelled by the fairy, the human compels the fairy, or the human and fairy meet and choose to marry. In cases where the human is compelled by the fairy it is usually what we might classify as an abduction: there are multiple examples of this across Irish folklore, where a person (usually a woman) is kidnapped by the Sidhe and taken into the Otherworld to marry one of the Good Folk. In cases where the human is compelling the fairy they either use magic or steal a magical item from the fairy; the girl who hears an elf blowing his horn on May Day morning and wishes for him as her husband is an example, where the elf appears to be compelled to do as she wishes against his own will. In the third case the meeting and marriage are more along what might be considered typical lines although the speed that things occur in is usually swift - in most stories where both partners are willing they often meet and marry quickly.
Gain and Loss
Another notable pattern that we must discuss is that in all of the examples we find of mixed species marriages, humans and Other, one partner must inevitably - by choice or force - give up their own world for the length of the marriage. This is not as simple as choosing to be with the partner and only being able to visit their own world but is a full immersion in the new reality to the exclusion of the old. Stories that discuss a partner returning to visit their own world inevitably end tragically, as we see when Oisín begs Niamh to visit Ireland only to fall from his horse, instantly age 300 years, and die. Fairy spouses that choose or are taken into the human world live fully within it, either becoming human themselves as we see in the story of the kelpie who weds a human girl*, or eventually returning to their own world, often heartbroken. Humans who are taken into Fairy and are not quickly rescued from it cannot safely return and must instead live out their existence in that realm or die, as Oisín did, when the time they missed on earth catches up to them upon their return.
There are only a few accounts of what we might call 'long distance marriages' where the human remains living on earth and is regularly visited by the fairy spouse, mostly found in the Arthurianesque material such as Lancelet and Ogier the Dane**.
It would seem that to choose marriage with a fairy - or to be forced into it - means one partner must make a choice to give up their own world, or be stolen from it.
Rules For Otherworldly Marriage
There are some basic rules that seem to exist across folklore for marriage between fairies and humans:
- Persuasion is often required for one partner (Gibson, 1955). One partner usually is advocating for the relationship while the other, human or fairy, is reluctant to engage in it. Even in cases where love seems to be a factor this is often in play, for example Connla takes a month to decide to go with his fairy woman and in Ogier the Dane Ogier goes through multiple trials and two human wives before accepting the fairy woman's love. Obviously in forced marriages this is even more extreme.
- The human partner is usually put under some form of prohibition in order to equalize the partnership (Spyra, 2020). Spyra suggests that there is an inherent power imbalance in these relationships which is addressed through the use of prohibitions which help to empower the human so long as they are adhered to. Certainly it is common in these stories to see the human partner explicitly given a thing they must do or must not do to retain their fairy spouse - for example Pressyne told her mortal husband he couldn't see her birth her children nor bath them and left when he violated that, and similarly her daughter Melusine prohibited her human husband from seeing her on Saturdays and left him when he did so.
In the case of forced marriages this is demonstrated through a secret the human must keep, whether that is the location of the selkie's sealskin or the knothole the mare entered through. If the fairy finds the source of the magic that's binding them to the human they will flee.
- Broken promises or prohibitions result in immediate dissolution of the marriage. Across all the stories this rule seems to exist without exception. To betray a fairy spouse is to lose that fairy spouse, and often lose anything you have gained since they came to you. Fairy wives will return to the place they came from, taking with them their own possessions and often any children who have been produced. Selkie wives who find their hidden sealskin leave immediately, even those that seem to have formed a genuine affection for their mortal spouse, and may or may not take their children with them. Humans taken into fairy voluntarily who break a promise or prohibition are immediately expelled, often leaving them insane or pining away for their lost spouse.
- That which belongs to the fairy spouse remains with the fairy spouse (Gibson, 1955). Although we might imagine fairy marriages as somewhat equal within themselves folklore paints a different picture, often implying that even when the fairy is in the human world they retain greater control, able to bring luck or financial success or withhold it and retaining possession of everything they brought with them or add to the marriage (as discussed above).
- Children are possible but must choose one world to live in. A common theme across these stories is that fairy-human marriages do result in children but that these children must choose a single world to live in, despite their mixed heritage. In some cases the child ultimately goes to the Otherworld with their fairy parent while in others they remain in the human world with their human parent; if staying in the human world they are often notably odd or unusual and have a reputation for uncanniness (Gundarsson, 2007).
*see McNeill, pp 68-72
** long distance or intermittent relationships are more common however in folklore of fairy lovers, rather than spouses per se.
Gundarsson, K., (2007) Elves, Wights, and Trolls
McNeil, H., (2001), The Celtic Breeze: Stories of the Otherworld from Scotland, Ireland, and Wales
Towrie, S., (2022) Mansie O'Kierfa and His Fairy Bride Retrieved from http://www.orkneyjar.com/folklore/fairicks/kierfea.htm