Fairies are of an interesting sort largely because even the most well-read and well-practiced among us don’t really know exactly what they are or indeed where exactly they come from. It doesn’t help us much that the term ‘Fairy’ has been used at one time or another to describe any and all types of magical creatures. For our purposes, we’re going to take a look the Western European Varieties of the Fae as they will be most accessible and familiar to the American reader.
Some scholars have suggested that the origin of the Fae in the western world of Ireland and Britain is actually a result of the syncretism between Scandinavian and Norse mythology after the Danish invasions of Britain. In this case, scholars like Anthony Thomson have made arguments that the Danes effectively brought the fairy folk along with them in myth and spirit when they sailed into English harbors sometime around 800 CE.
That said, the Fenian cycle of Irish writings seem to directly contradict this theory. The texts of the Fenian cycle, compiled in writing around 1200 CE from an older longstanding oral tradition, seem to indicate that tales and stories of the Fae, known as the aes sidhe or “people of the mound” (Called such as the fae were thought to have been literally pushed underground by later invaders, explaining their ability to pop up just about anywhere at any time) were quite common in Ireland more than half a millennia before the Danish invasion.
The Interrogation of the Old Men, a classic text in this milieu, states quite clearly the exploits of the Irish Legend, Finn MacCumhaill (MacCool), among others in their interactions with the Fae around 300 CE.
Other scholars have previously put forth the idea that fairies are no more than what Paracelsus understood to be elementals only under a different guise. Though their underground abode does draw some comparisons to the habitat of gnomes, this theory, too, seems not to stack up as the early myths of Irish folklore describe the fairy folk as decedents of the first people who come from an altogether different sort of world; a world which is beyond what we would consider elemental ethers of nature.
In modern parlance, we might refer to this world as the “Astral” plane. In Arthurian Legend it is a place called “Avalon”. It’s worth mentioning that in English folklore Queen Mab of the fairies is understood as the Queen of Dreams; dreams and the dreamscape having much to do with our popular conceptions of the Astral plane.
Just as a quick aside, the notion that fairies were pushed underground or into a sort of dreamscape by invading humans could be seen, rather easily, to be a metaphor for the burying of our more base instincts and actions under the guise of civilized personhood. This “underground” could well be taken to mean the recesses of the unconscious mind where we banish our more primal desires and urges. When you consider that Fae in common folklore are generally thought of as mischevious partygoers, this starts to make more and more sense.
Thomson, as we mentioned in the last chapter, notes that the Fae themselves tend to live in a type of pocket dimension of the astral realm sometimes called Fairy land, or Alf-heinner as it was known among Germanic peoples. Of interest is his note that the Fae have a tendency to depart what we would consider their homes and appear on earth at regular intervals to have nights filled with magick and merriment.
The fairies themselves seem to have a disposition for manifestation in concordance with temporal conditions, that is to say, they are most likely to cavort in the hours of night and dusk in alignment with the lunar cycles. These conditions under which the Fae are known to manifest to human vision are a common and recurring theme across the British, Irish and Scottish Isles as well as upon mainland Europe.
As far as intervals of time go, there are conflicting contentions which claim that fairies have particular days in which they are most active in the human realm. After compiling several sources however, it quickly became apparent that each source conflicted with at least one other source, often many other sources. When I put the sources side by side, the days which fairies were thought to be most active included literally every day of the week.
Further, nowhere in classical literature have I found references to fairies being bound to a particular realm without these previous conditions of night being met. It seems that the Fae themselves enjoy a relative level of freedom to explore any and all realms as they see fit at any time they desire, regardless of day or time.
If this is truly the case, then without further writings pointing to the contrary it stands to reason that fairies are free to travel about between the lower spheres and realms as they please; traversing nature as humans might traverse the local park. Further, the veil between worlds, while ultimately penetrable on any day, at any time, and among any set of prevailing conditions, seems to be traversed most readily by such creatures at dusk or during the night.
Another way in which the Fae differ from elementals is that fairies are not necessarily comprised of one basic element. If elementals are comprised of, and indeed live primarily in the etheric world of the natural elements, fairies might be thought to be more like moths that hover around a light source than the light itself. They are not comprised of the etheric elements themselves, as the elementals seem to be, and thus are not sequestered to their respective elemental abodes.
That being said, the Fae are much closer to Humans in terms of complexity of composition than the elementals are. Elementals inhabit particular ethers related to their elemental makeup, fairies, and their human adept counterparts, are not seemingly bound to one type of ether and tend to move through the differing realms with relative ease.
Support for this view is offered by what are referred to by scholars of Irish and Celtic history as the ‘mythological cycle of writings’, first in a series of 4 cycles of Irish history, in which the forerunners of the Fae literally invade Ireland with all the engines of war (swords, shields and the like) that one would expect to accompany a human army.
It is important to note that while the elemental ethers may make up at least part of what we refer to as the astral plane, indeed the etheric realms can easily be thought of as a lower, that is to say closer to physical manifestation, aspect of the astral, Fairies seem to emerge from and retreat to an altogether different location in this mysterious realm and seem to manifest physically whenever they please for as long as they please. Where exactly that place is, and whether its name is actually Avalon or Fairy land or the Land of Adorable/Terrifying and Possibly Winged Mischief Makers (I made that one up), I will leave to more competent magicians to discover.
Additionally, we have discussed the fact that elementals are considered to be somewhat specialized, given their elemental makeup, but fairies are considered to be even more so. Take for instance the “bean sidhe” (Banshee) or “Woman of the mound”. This is a particular type of fairy that would scream and wail to forewarn of a coming death. Another example: The leanan sidhe had a penchant for seducing and eventually marrying men. Nowhere in the classical literature do we find anything amounting to such specialized roles for varying elementals, outside of the rulers of the elemental hierarchies, leaving us with yet another piece of evidence in the written record that fairies and elementals are in fact two distinct classes of beings.
That all said fairies are definitely closer in makeup to elementals than they are to thought forms given their autonomous nature, and they are nonetheless still planted squarely in what Qabalistic magicians would call “the lower spheres”. Meaning, unlike thought-forms, faeries seem to be somewhat independent of human creation; In contrast to angels or demons however, fairies are akin to elementals in that they are still very much connected to the realms of nature and the astral, though not strictly bound to either realm.
In more modern writings on the topic of the Fae, some strains of theosophical literature posit that fairies have a tendency to be tied to a particular location, what they might call their “earthen home”. This phenomenon seems to be simply the choice of the individual fairy, contrary to what certain theosophists stipulate, not a result of any particular cosmic principle binding them to a given area.
Much in the same fashion that humans are molded by their environment, the elemental makeup of any given location will determine the temperament of the fairies in question who chose to inhabit it. In this way they are much more of an amalgamation of elements then purely constructed out of one aspect of experience, as in the case of a Gnome for example. It is best to think of fairies then as composite beings, more complex than elementals or thought forms, but less so than angels or demonic spirits.
Take for example a Gnome which is more or less made up of the pure element of animated Earth. Fairies who call the mountains their home might contain energies that would be rightly called partly earth, partly air, and partly water on top of the energies that they bring with them from Fairy Land, immediately marking them as much more complex beings. If one is willing to take some linguistic liberty, certain fairies might be thought of as composite elementals.
To draw a contrast between these beings on the lower spheres of existence like elementals and Fae, it would do us well to briefly examine entities such as Angels.
Angels themselves are exceedingly complex as they are thought to govern a complete body of influence. For example, the biblical archangel Michael is of a spiritual nature and would begin in the realm of what Theosophists understand to be the Causal body. To explain what that actually means, we have to borrow a theosophical model (Which in turn was borrowed from the philosophies of certain Hindu religious schools, predominantly Vedanta and Classical Yoga) sometimes referred to as the “Chain of Vehicles”. There’s quite a bit to be written on the nuances of this notion, but that is for another time.
For our purposes, the key to understanding this general function behind the concept of the ‘chain of vehicles’ is illustrated by the notion that an angelic being like Michael possesses a series of different vessels/bodies/vehicles to manifest his actions. As angels tend to originate in what certain Theosophists call the causal body, their celestial vibrations cascade downward into what we consider to be “lower” bodies of existence and eventually in the astral mental and physical bodies of humans and other beings.
To further understand the principle, we’ll use a human being as a simple example.
- Causal: The Human being conceives of a higher principle in the abstract (Ex. Compassion)
- Emotional: That principle filters down to emotions (Ex. It feels good to help. It feels bad to harm)
- Mental: That emotional response filters down into images (Ex. Images of assisting the less fortunate)
- Etheric: The emotions filter down into thoughts (Ex. It would be good to do this good thing I have conceived of!)
- Physical: These thoughts finally culminate in action in the Etheric body which compels the physical body to action in the world. (Ex. Volunteering at a charity, etc.)
Chain of Vehicles (As Understood in Theosophy):
Spirit body->Soul Body->Causal Body->Emotional Body->Mental Body->Etheric Body->Physical Body
Fairies as we already mentioned are also composite beings, but their chain of vehicles by which they express that nature is limited in comparison to their angelic brethren. As best I can tell, the genesis of the Fae chain starts either in the emotional or mental bodies of the universe, generally reacting to the higher vibrations of other beings and influences. This makes them much closer to undeveloped humans than it does to Angels or other orders of transcendental beings. Elementals on the other hand are confined strictly to the etheric and physical bodies (depending on your reference).
Fairies in this way have substantially less to do with such cosmic, dare I say, archetypal, energies of creation and instead are much more specialized and restricted in their exhibition of phenomena. (i.e., Wailing to forewarn of a death, etc.)
What all this means in a practical sense for the magician is that if one is to summon an elemental to perform some tasks, say for instance one summons a gnome to assist in the fortification of the body (as the physical body corresponds to gnomes which in turn correspond to the element earth in systems of Hermetic Qabalah), that particular gnome’s assistance will not be of much use in regulating emotional or thought currents within the individual.
Conversely, if one were to summon an Archangel to assist in the fortification of the body, a complete overhaul of the summoner and their personality may result due to the angels’ wide reach of vehicles by which to express itself. This has to do largely with the correspondences derived from working with angelic beings and, frankly, may or may not be a good thing depending on the operation at hand. Keep in mind that it is exceedingly difficult to perform a precise surgery with Michaels’ flaming sword.
With those two examples in mind, if we were instead to call upon the assistance of a fairy whose makeup is, shall we say, partly water and partly earth, one will find themselves much more able to affect both the body and the emotional content of the practitioner without subjecting the rest of the personality to the disruptively powerful vibrations present among angels or other celestials.
This makes the assistance of fairies invaluable in performing certain, often short term, tasks that require a level of finesse that elementals or indeed angels may simply not be capable of providing. Even better if there is a hyper-specialized task to perform and the practitioner happens to be acquainted with a fairy perfectly suited to doing it! (Seducing a man, warning of a death, etc.)
Something else unique to fairies is the lore surrounding the strange natural phenomenon that has come to be known as “fairy rings”. These naturally occurring circles of mycelium or deadened grass have come to occupy a particular part in fairy lore. Legends abound of the dangers they introduce to humans who are foolish enough to enter the circle without proper protection.
It is said that those who enter fairy rings are forced into a sort of madness that compels the occupant to dance until they quite literally drop dead. Other stories understand such rings as portals to the fairy world itself, beckoning unsuspecting humans to enter and become trapped in an alternative realm.
Stories abound through the literature often giving mention of humans crossing back and forth between the worlds, sometimes spending a substantial amount of time away from earth. The Scottish Ballad of Tam Lin tells of such a journey where Tam Lin winds up trapped in the Fae realm, unable to touch the ground, lest he be stuck outside of the human world… (Dramatic music intensifies) Forever! Other versions of the tale seem to indicate that Tam Lin is actually going to be sacrificed to the netherworld because the fairy queen apparently needs to pay off a debt to unknown dark forces.
He was only rescued when his true love quite literally scooped him up and carried him out of the Fairy realm in her arms. During the process, he tells his love that the fairy magic will transform him into all manner of beasts in order to force her to drop him, but he assures her that no harm will befall her so long as she trusts in herself. Eventually, the fated couple is successful and the two manage to escape.
The story itself is one deeply woven with fairy magic as most fairy stories are. Curiously enough, many of the tales surrounding fairy magic have a distinct element that tends to involve acts of transformation and shape shifting. This aspect of transformation is by no means unique to stories of the Fae, but it is somewhat unique (outside the myriad tales of Native American Shamans and spirit helpers) in the fact that in the British and Irish tales the Fae share this ability with human witches and wizards.
This sort of shared ability speaks to a level of interconnectedness between those who knew how to wield magic and the denizens of the fairy realms. The recurrence of these incidents in the folklore and literature indicates a strange similarity with humanity; as indeed the stories seem to imply a sort of shared heritage among Fae and humans which other beings like elementals and thought forms, simply do not possess.
Now of course, there are no shortages of stories that incorporate shape shifting across the span of human history. In popular fiction the most prominent example of this phenomena will be known by most as the werewolf, but it should be noted that this is most often portrayed as a sort of curse, not an act of will.
It is the act of will that differentiates the Stories of Celtic Witches and Wizards from werewolves of the popular imagination. The magi of Celtic, Druid and Irish lore are not at the mercy of anything, with the occasional exceptions being made for various Gods, occasionally the monotheistic God of the Christians, and of course their own power.
Take the stories of Merlin for instance. Time and time again Merlin shifts his form into such delightful animals as turtles, rabbits, crabs, goats and even a talking stag. He also has the ability to turn humans into other humans, as well as various creatures, as demonstrated in modern telling of the tale of Arthur when he turns one of his apprentices into a fish and later into a squirrel. These transformations of both himself and his apprentice are undertaken with ease and are seen to come almost naturally. In this case, Merlin seems to wield the same magic that the fairies utilized to change Tam Lin into all sorts of hideous beasts during his escape.
Other stories of willedtransformations outside of traditional fairy stories are mostly made up of Gods doing God-related things. They include stories like that of the Greek God Zeus, who enjoyed changing into animals to get laid as well as avoiding the scorn of his human lovers. Another Greek Goddess, Athena, is fabled to have turned poor Arachne into a spider.
In the Norse myths, the Gods Loki, Freyja, and Odin all have been known at one time or another to transform into animals or other strange monstrous beings.
In the Eastern world, particularly China, Korea, and Japan, there are myriad mentions of shapeshifters that aren’t necessarily categorized as Gods, but that’s effectively where their similarity to the Fae end. The most common of these beings is known in China as the ‘Huli Jing’, a sort of fox spirit which appears most often as a beautiful woman in the attempt to seduce men and steal their essence for magickal power.
This being is closer to what we in the western occult traditions would know as a succubus, precluding it from our discussion of fairies. (It is of curious note that some authors of the later writings of the Arthurian legend ascribe Merlin’s powers to the fact that he was potentially the offspring of a human and a female succubus, called an incubus.) We will discuss such beings as these in the next chapter.
We mention these mythologies to illustrate the point that the beings doing the shifting are either very clearly made out to be either Gods, or otherwise they are very specific beings known primarily for their transformations like the Somali ‘Hyena-Man’ or Qori ismaris, literally, “Man who rubs himself with a stick [to turn into a hyena]”.
It is of note that these beings mostly seem to lack the greater command of magic that the Fae of the British Isles possess. It is also striking that the humans in these stories are most often at the mercy of these seemingly otherworldly powers.
Only the Celts of Ireland and England, and as mentioned some forms of indigenous spirituality, particularly among tribes of Native Americans, have widespread lore that demonstrates an ability of human adepts, be they witches, wizards or shamans, to change form into animals.
Similarly striking is that of the magical beings present across folklores which are not Gods, only the Fae seem to possess both the capacity to change shape at will, as well as utilize varying forms of magic. It is this that they have in common with humans and begs a question of, why?
What makes fairy magic special when compared to the abilities of other spirits or beings? What connects the human adepts to the powers of the Fae?
The short answer is something we touched on earlier; the shared utilization of the Astral plane. Call it Avalon, call it Alf-Heinner, call it what you will, but the linking characteristic between humans like Merlin, Morgan Le Fay and the Lady of the Lake, Nimue with the Fae is that both groups, human adepts and the fairies, have a connection to this otherworldly plane that somehow simultaneously includes and transcends the lower elemental spheres.
There is a word in Old Anglo-Saxon, ‘Haegtesse’. The etymology of the term itself is fuzzy (as are the origins of most ancient things) but it is generally thought to mean something like “hedge rider”. Through the ages, the meaning has gradually been transformed to be “hedgewitch.” Today the term is generally used in occult circles to denote those who sit on the border of places, perhaps on the border of our world and the astral; perhaps on the edge of Avalon.
The same phenomenon pops up in other languages as well. Old Norse had it’s ‘tunrida’ and Old High German had it’s ‘zunritha’, both words meaning literally “hedge rider”. Something that gets more curious is that the Norse word ‘tunrida’ seems to be linked to the Norwegian ‘tysja’ meaning fairy.
But all that aside, I mention this only to demonstrate that the knowledge of human witches or magical folks being somehow connected with the otherworld is old news. It is only in our modern age that we have seemingly forgotten our shared roots that stretch out into unknown places. Places that, to be sure are filled with magic and wonder, but by the same token are certainly not realms consisting purely of love and light.
In that vein, the last thing we will mention on the Fae is their curious propensity in folklore, particularly after the introduction of Christianity to Europe, to substitute human children with their own. As legends go, one night you will be resting peacefully in your home with your newborn, but by morning, something has changed about them. It might be subtle, it might be decidedly less than subtle, but you can be sure that your child has been stolen, ferried away to Avalon, and left in its stead sits a fairy baby.
These new children, left for men and women alike by the fairies, are most often known as changelings. Why exactly fairies seemingly felt the need to substitute human children with their own is anyone’s guess, although if Ralph of Coggeshall (the monk of the Cistercian abbey at Coggeshall in Essex) is to be believed, the beginning of this idea was resultant from the fact that those within the church believed infants and un-baptized babies were most susceptible to demonic possession. Given this understanding, during the more devout Christian periods many believed that the fairies would steal children to deliver them to the devil. Others considered that the children might be taken to strengthen the fairy’s bloodlines and allow them a closer connection to the powers of humanity, still others still believed that the fairies just thought it a good bit of fun to make such mischief.
In any event, considering that it was generally considered to be somewhat unpleasant to have your child stolen by fairies, methods were devised to facilitate the return of the child. These ranged from the adorable suggestions of making the changeling laugh, thus signaling the fairies to come and swap out the changeling again with your original baby, to the somewhat less adorable suggestions of torturing the changeling which would apparently elicit the same effect. As absurd as it sounds, historically speaking this was a bummer of a suggestion as it led to several real-world examples of fairly egregious child abuse.
Taking a step back from the lore for a moment, it’s worth mentioning Jung again and those aspects of the psyche that, on occasion, can temporarily escape from the control of the conscious self. If there ever was an apt psychological description for how children can change on a dime, it is this. It is no wonder that in a time filled with horrendous trauma, famine, plague and suffering, children had little breaks in their persona from time to time (given that children do not have a fully developed ego to begin with) leading to personality shifts, indeed what priests might call “possession” or what the stories of the changelings are hinting at. Clearly, some children undoubtedly did change by virtue of their circumstances, their ego may have been consumed by different aspects of the psyche, but not necessarily by the Fae.
It would then make sense, if we adhere to the psychological view, that one could be rescued from an autonomous fragment of the psyche running amok, by a good strong laugh as in certain disciplines of Lila Yoga. Each chuckle sets one’s awareness back to the primacy of their nervous system, short-circuiting thought patterns and returning to the immediate reality of things. Likewise, torturing the body, as Yogis have done for centuries via austerities and Christian monks have done via flagellation, will often have the same effect of refocusing on the nervous system.
If you are sympathetic to the Jungian psychic model, it neatly and nearly perfectly describes the phenomena of the changeling. If you are not and choose to believe that these beings are autonomous entities, the end result in your interaction with them is the same. Respect yourself and your psychic space by respecting your environment and remembering to return to the nervous system, the fairies will leave you well enough alone. Both viewpoints are actionable; in this case conceptualizations of truth seemingly matter less than practical undertakings.
 Anne Joseph Eusebe and Eusebe, Baconniere-Salverte, Philosophy of Magic Prodigies and Apparent Miracles. Trans, Anthony Thomson. (London. Schulse and Co. 1846). 124
 Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. “The Interrogation of the Old Men.” Encyclopedia Britannica, November 24, 1999. https://www.britannica.com/topic/The-Interrogation-of-the-Old-Men.
 Macalister, Robert Alexander Stewart, and Pádraig Ó Riain. Lebor gabála Érenn: the book of the taking of Ireland. Dublin: Published for the Irish Texts Society by the Educational Co. of Ireland, 1938.
 Kathleen Ragan, Fearless Girls, Wise Women and Beloved Sisters. (New York. Norton and Company. 1998). 40-42
Miranda Griffin, The space of Transformation: Merlin Between Two Deaths. (Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature. MediumAevum. Vol.80. 2011.) 85-100
 Thomas Malory, “How Uther Pendragon made war on the duke of Cornwall, and how by the mean of Merlin he lay by the duchess and gat Arthur.” in Le Morte D’Arthur Vol 1. Edited by William Caxton. (Project Gutenberg. November 6, 2009) Retrieved from https://www.heroofcamelot.com/docs/Le-Morte-dArthur.pdf 34-35