Hello! I'm considering working on writing what I think could be a major undertaking for me, this being a long (epic?) poem, involving the Fair Folk! I know you do a lot of stuff related to Greek and Roman mythology, but fair folk count as mythological too (don't they?) and I thought perhaps they'd fall under your area of knowledge. If that's the case I was wondering if you had any sources you might be able to direct me to, so I can learn more about them? Thank you! I very much enjoy your blog.
Hello!! Sorry that this is a bit late, and I hope it’s still useful.
So, on my Master’s, I did a module on Celtic mythology which included a bit on fairies. However, I decided to write mostly on the realm of the fairies (the Otherworld idea) more than the fairies themselves. I can give you a few sources and ideas, though!
- As always, I’m going to shove the old disclaimer here that Celtic studies really had a bit of a teething problem. The earlier scholarship (think late 19th to early 20th century) is incredibly fanciful and based almost entirely on speculation or inaccurate reconstructions. Some things that we tend to consider as key tenets of Celtic myth, like their ~closeness to nature~ and their ~matriarchal or egalitarian societies~ are honestly just wank made up by bored white people, usually Americans, who wanted to pretend that their heritage was idealistic so they could feel proud of it and therefore closer to it. Oops.
- Fairies were spooky as hell!! They weren’t necessarily tricksters or even malevolent, but they were considered to live by a totally different moral code to humans, a bit like the gods in many of the well-known Greek and Roman myths. Not that their code was similar to that, because it wasn’t, but the idea of a difference in morality between humans and fairies was prevalent. This meant that fairies were often depicted as being very unpredictable, because certain acts necessitated consequences that to humans seemed irrelevant, but followed the fairy moral code.
- An example of this would be the entrance to the Otherworld. Human beings were not supposed to contact fairies. They were supposed to wait for fairies to contact them. To make this more feasible, the entrance to the Otherworld, where the fairies existed, was temporally and spatially distant from the human world. There were certain times and locations at which the two worlds blurred and it was possible for humans to traverse the boundaries – fairies, of course, didn’t need to wait, and could cross at any time. However, it was possible for humans to seek out these specific locations and cross into the Otherworld, essentially traversing the boundaries not only between the worlds but between human and fairy moralities, and this usually led to punishment for the human. The most common form of punishment would be temporal displacement; the human would live happily in the Otherworld for, say, 5 years, and when they decided to leave, they would find that 500 years had passed in the human world and they were barred from the Otherworld, essentially living in neither world. Seems a bit out of proportion to me, but there you go.
- tl;dr fairies are often presented as inherently malevolent, when actually they just Did Things Differently.
- Death!! You’ll probably come across some wank sources which claim that Celtic fairies are definitive proof that Celtic people worshipped the dead, or that they represent Christian angels, or that fairies were pagan gods. None of these are accurate (or at least proven to be so), so take those with a pinch of salt. However, there are links between fairies and death. You couldn’t eat in the Otherworld, for example; a bit like the Greek myth of Persephone, who wasn’t supposed to eat in the Underworld. Fairies could literally take you out of the human world and trap you forever in theirs, which has obvious parallels with death. Certain rituals described in fairy lore, such as feasts and dancing in the Otherworld, resembles what we know of burial rites and death rituals. None of it is definitive, but it’s enough to posit that fairies had a very dangerous side.
Some fancy sources:
- Katherine Briggs – Encyclopedia of Fairies
- Carole Silver – Strange and Secret Peoples (this one is actually about the role played by fairies in the Victorian era, when much of the spurious scholarship was being produced – still interesting!)
- W. Y. Evans-Wentz – The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries (one of the old ones, but one of the less wanky ones. Linking it primarily as it’s freely available here)
I’m not sure what your access to journals and stuff is like, so I won’t link specific articles, but Folklore,
Ériu and any of the Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium would also be good places to look!
Hope some of this is helpful!