Christian Myths of the Fae

Maybe it’s the time of year – the green furze that is (at long last) covering the branches of the willow tree near my house, the daffodils screaming from the flower bed, the peepers and tree toads keeping me awake all night with their amorous, ear-bleeding cacophony…the ring of toadstools I saw on the neighbor’s lawn…

Maybe it’s the books I’ve been reading lately, taking a break from a strict diet of occult non-fiction to delve back into poetry and prose. Huntress by Malinda Lo – pushed on me by a friend who is an unabashed YA fantasy enthusiast – a dystopian tale of magic, monsters, otherworldly beings, first love and the moral implications of bloody acts of heroism (the protagonists are two girls – this ain’t your mama’s YA)  – a beautifully written and nuanced work of fiction. Mortal Love by Elizabeth Hand (so nice I read it twice) – a rich, adult (quite!) novel about modern London (good honest grit) and the Pre-Raphaelite poets and painters whose source of fevered inspiration is still around and unhinging romantic minds everywhere. And a wide range of poets, but Wordsworth first and foremost. Whenever I’m feeling spent I turn to The Prelude* – and start to feel the world again.

So all this is a windy way of saying that Ankhie is into all things Fae at the moment. It is my personal form of Spring Fever. Happens every year.

In this spirit I offer an excerpt from one of my  favorites from the Weiser backlist – A Complete Guide to Faeries & Magical Beings, by Cassandra Eason. Enjoy!

Fairies or faeries are frequently regarded in either angelic or demonic terms, but they are essentially different. No one knows when a belief in fairies began, but legends of indigenous peoples whose traditions survived for thousands of years in song and story tell of encounters with the fairy kingdom. Foe example, one of the principal deities of the New Zealand Maoris is Tangaroa, the God of the Oceans and of fish, sea fairies, mermen and mermaids.

According to Native American belief, humans are but one of the several races inhabiting the Earth. There are also the Standing People (the trees), the Stone People (the rocks), the Four-Legged People (the animals), the Plant People (all that grows), the Feathered People (the birds), and the Crawling People (the insects). Along with the Two-Legged People (men and women), all are equally sacred and interdependent in the great hoop or wheel of existence. Indeed, as the most recent creation, man is regarded as having much to learn from the older and wiser forms of life. In such a view fairies, as the essences of plant, tree and stone and as spirits of wind, water, fire and storm, predated human and even animal life. Humans have created forms for these spirits that resemble our own, but in miniature so that we may try to contain their power within the world we believe we have been given to rule.

In the Westernized world, theories of the origins of fairies have therefore reflected different cultures and ages as explanations for energies that were experienced, but were not easily categorized.

CHRISTIAN VIEWS OF FAIRIES

One of the most intriguing theories is that fairies were once mortal, but were punished for the sins of Eve. An Icelandic legend, perhaps Christianized by missionary monks in the eleventh century who saw fairies as part of the pagan world they sought to eradicate, says that Eve was washing her children when God spoke to her. In fear, Eve hid the children she had not yet washed. When God asked if all her children were present, Eve said they were. This angered God, who declared: “as you have hidden your children from my sight, so shall they for evermore be hidden from yours.” This is said to explain why children see fairies who presumably never grew up (shades of Peter Pan), and the desire both of mortals to see and interact with fairies so as to restore the lost kinship and of fairies themselves to live close to the mortal world and sometimes share it.

Fallen Angels and Other Theories

A popular view that still persists in countries of Celtic culture is that fairies are fallen angels driven out of Heaven with Lucifer, but not sufficiently evil to be cast into Hell. It is sometime hypothesized that they did not fight against God but remained neutral, and when St. Michael closed the gates of Heaven against the rebels they were left outside. A fairy’s station in life was determined by where he or she fell to Earth, so that for example those who fell into water became undines or water nymphs. This accords with what is called the naturalistic theory, that fairies reflect the nature of the terrain they inhabit… Certainly there are descriptions of fairies from Ireland and Brittany as tall shining beings.

But not all Celtic cultures follow this story. In Manx tradition, it was said that “Themselves,” as fairies were called to avoid the taboo of naming them directly, were the souls of those drowned in Noah’s Flood.

From medieval times fairies were demonized by the Catholic Church and later by the Puritans. At the trial of Joan of Arc in 1431, fairies were cited as part of the evidence against her. It was claimed she had practiced rites around an oak  known as the Fairy Tree when she was a young woman. In fact, that particular tree had become a shrine to the Virgin Mary and the girls wove garlands in her honour, an example of the mingling of old and new religious traditions that was common among ordinary people of those times.

The Old Gods

Another theory states that the fairies are former gods and spirits of wise pagans such as Druids whose power dwindled with the coming of new faiths, especially Christianity. This accords with an ancient belief that a deity can only be powerful as long as he or she is worshipped.

This is certainly the most common origin cited for the daoine sidhe, the underground fairy court of Ireland, who are said to be the former gods of the Tuatha de Danaan, described as beings of light, the Shining Ones, the Shimmering Ones and the Ancient Ones from the Land of Youth.

According to the Breton writer Hersart de la Villemarque in 1839, the Corrigans were female fairies who were formerly great priestesses but, refusing to accept Christianity, were cursed by God – or, rather, the early Christian saints. The Bretons also believed that some were the souls of  Druidesses, condemned to do penance forever. They were seen most frequently near fountains next to dolmens, “in lonely places from where the Virgin Mary, who passes for their greatest enemy, has not yet chased them.”

…some of these were actual Druidesses who survived until the eighteenth century, offering healing and medicine to people in return for food and money – hence the power of healing attributed to fairy women. They may also have acted as midwives for local women, and in Brittany the practice of setting aside a room for the fairies next to any birthing chamber survived into the nineteenth century.

The deities of the Old Religion that were not demonized were transformed in folklore and legend into fairies, and thus became less of a threat to the newly established religion. The Mother Goddess survived in myth and secret worship as the Good Fairy, Fairy Godmother or Queen of the Fairies.

But in some ways this was counter-productive. The legends of the old gods, diminished in size and status to fairies by the priests and monks who wanted to destroy their hold on popular consciousness, kept alive the ancient pantheistic form of religion that embraced darkness and light, good and evil, benevolence and destruction.

from A Complete Guide to Faeries and Magical Beings, by Cassandra Eason

* The Prelude is in no way a fairy poem, but Wordsworth captures the majesty and menace of natural settings in a way that echoes many otherworld myths. Plus it’s just an amazingly beautiful work!

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2 thoughts on “Christian Myths of the Fae

    1. She actually goes into the specific races of fairy folk later in the book (the section I quoted was from the beginning) and mentions several that are unique to Native American myth and lore – fascinating stuff! Having spent most of my childhood wandering the woods and fields around my house, I know now why I never felt alone there.

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