Monday, 11 February 2013

Fairies - Protection, Sacred Plants and Locations

Fairies were once considered to be capable of both good and bad, of helping or hurting humans.  In fact, in Celtic countries like Scotland and Ireland, venturing too close to a fairy or the dwelling of fairies was considered to be especially dangerous, more so if you were a beautiful woman or a handsome man.  So what could you do to please these little people?

Protection

The first thing people tried to do was to avoid fairies altogether.  Farmers avoided going into the mill at night as this was the time when the fairies brought their grain to be ground.  Any interruption of this important task could earn a farmer a failed crop or some other curse.
It was important to take care where you were walking.  You certainly wouldn't want to step on a strange tuft of grass or stray sod as it might trigger a nasty spell.  Doing so could cause your path through the woods to disappear or you may veer in the wrong direction or cross a field only to find yourself back where you started.  This particular situation was known as being pixie-led and could happen in broad daylight.
St John's Wart
To protect yourself from these situations you could wear St. John's Wart which was said to protect a person from fairy magic and mischief.  To protect horses from being ridden to exhaustion, garlands of marsh marigolds were hung above barn doors.  Other flowers, especially primroses, were placed on windowsills and hung above doors to stop fairies from entering your house.

You could avoid being led astray by the Will-o'-the-Wisp by not following it.  Locations believed to be the dwellings of fairies, along with fairy paths, should be avoided and digging in fairy mounds is unwise.  House owners have, in the past, been known to knock down corners of their houses to stop them from obstructing a fairy path.  In other cases, cottages have been built with aligning back and front doors so the owners could, in times of need, leave both doors open so the fairies could pass through during the night.  C.S. Lewis reported hearing of a case where a cottage was more feared for the fairies that lived there than the ghosts.

A Fairy Fort
Fairy forts were, and in some cases (such as in Ireland) still are, left undisturbed.  Even cutting trees, bushes or brush growing on fairy forts was discouraged as it was said to incur the wrath of the fairies, leading to the death of the person who performed the cutting.  It was also considered to cut fairy trees, such as thorn trees as is might upset the fairies.  One case in Scotland tells of how a fairy tree was left undisturbed even though it prevented a road from being widened.  This went on for 70 years.

Fairies were believed to be capable of vanishing at will and could remain invisible to human eyes for as long as they wished.  However, this could be counteracted by carrying a four-leaf clover in a small bag worn around the neck.  This would grant the user the opportunity to see these invisible beings - but only once.  In Celtic traditions, several four-leaf clovers were sewn into a small bag, giving the user more that one chance to spot a fairy.  Other legends tell us that four-leaf clovers allowed  people to see through fairy glamour and magical disguises.
Four Leaf Clover
Iron is considered one of the best deterrents to a fairy.  An iron nail in your pocket could save you from being carried away by the fairies.  Iron shears mounted on a wall near a babies bed would protect the child from being swapped for a fairy changeling.  Iron horseshoes could be nailed over doors to prevent fairies from entering.
Red berries were, by some, considered a deterrent, especially if they came from rowan, mountain ash or holly trees.  Some of these ideas are actually contradictory - for example, the rowan is sometimes said to be sacred to the fairies, where, in other examples, is said to protect against them. 
Oatmeal was also said to repel fairies and was put either in your pocket or sprinkled over your clothing.
Other protective charms included running water, wearing your clothes inside out and bells, especially church bells.  However, as with the rowan, bells are not always a deterrent.  The fairy queen was believed to have bells on the harness of her horse.  The crowing of a cockerel is another contradiction, in some instances driving the fairies away but in other situations fairies were believed to keep poultry.

Newfoundland folklore once used bread as protection against fairies.  The bread sometimes had to be stale, sometimes fresh, and, in other instances, had to be hard tack (a type of cracker or biscuit).  They believed that bread had some magical power and this goes back to more ancient beliefs.  Bread is associated with home or hearth, with industry and with the taming of nature.  For these reasons, some fairies seem to dislike bread.  This, however, isn't the rule for all fairies.

Other cultures protected themselves from fairies by cooperating and respecting them.  The Welsh were known to leave bread and milk on the porch at night as an offering for the fairies.  This was considered a way of stopping the fairies from playing tricks on the family and was also believed to gain a family favour with the fairies.  Fairies are also believed to like ale, butter and cream.
In Ireland, if you spilt salt you might throw some over your shoulder as an offering to the fairies.  When passing a river, pond or lake, or even a well, you may drop a piece of silver there for the fairy that lives there.  If you were milking a cow or goat, you might allow the first few squirts to fall on the ground in the hopes that it would please the fairies that were thirsty.
Brownies could be kept from taking spiteful action if you made the effort to keep your house in good order.  If they believed that you weren't making enough of an effort to keep your house clean, they were believed to pinch you in your sleep

Some fairies were believed to be offended by a lack of hospitality and courtest among mortals and would punish them accordingly.  If you treated these creatures with fairness, honesty and generosity they were more likely to repay the favour or to at least leave you alone.
Giving clothes to a brownie is believed, in some cases, to cause them great offence.  This sometimes resulted in the brownie leaving and was believed to be due to the clothing being of inferior quality.  However, in other cases, brownies are said to be delighted with the gift of clothing, leaving with it.  In other cases, brownies were offended by overheard complaints or compliments of their work.
People who saw fairies were advised not to look too closely as fairies saw this close inspection as an infringement of their privacy.

Many believed that millers were in league with the fairies and, as a result, mills were avoided at all costs during the night.  As long as the locals believed this, a miller could sleep soundly in the knowledge that his stores were not being stolen.  The miller of Whitehill, John Froser claimed to have hidden and watched the fairies trying unsuccessfully to work his mill.  After watching them struggle, he decided to help them, with one of the fairy women gifting him with a gawpen, or a handful of meal.  She told him to put this into his empty gimal, or store, and that it would keephis grain store full for the foreseeable future, no matter how much he took out.

Fairies, when offended, were noted for their mischief and their malice.  They were believed to tangle the hair of people sleeping into Elf-locks, to steal small items and to lead wanderers astray.  But they were believed to be capable of far worse.  In some instances, sudden death was attributed to the fairies having stolen the person, with the corpse being a wooden replacement in the appearance of the person who had been kidnapped.
Tuberculosis or consumption was, at times, blamed on the fairies forcing people to dance at revels every night until they wasted away from lack of rest.  Paralysis and other mysterious illnesses in animals were often connected to the fairies riding them, often encompassing pigs, horses, cows and ducks.

If you knew the name of a particular fairy, it was believed that you could summon the fairy and get it to do you bidding.  The name could be used both as an insult to the fairy and as a way to gain powers and gifts.

Sacred To The Fairies

As you can see, there are many ways to insult and offend a fairy, but it is possible to please a fairy which may lead to the granting of gifts.  Fairies are said to hold certain trees as sacred.  As such, it is best to avoid these trees at night, especially hazel, thorn, alder and oak which are favourites of the fairies.  Venturing too near may result in you getting pinched and hit as you walk by, or even tangled in the branches until morning.  Hawthorn is held sacred to the fairies and is also known as a wishing tree.  The Irish know the hawthorn as 'the fairy bush' due to the belief that fairy spirits live there, acting as guardians.  As such, it was believed to be bad luck to cut or damage a hawthorn tree as it may offend the fairies.  According to some folklore, if you find oak, ash and hawthorn growing together, you might see fairies as these trees are powerful fairy trees which represent the three realms - the underworld, middleworld and upperworld.
A Famous Fairy Hawthorn Tree
Some ponds, lakes and rivers were believed to be favourite places for the water fairies and kelpies.  Coming to these places alone was considered to be dangerous.  If the water fairies were displeased by your presence they might find yourself pulled in and drowned.  If this were to happen, it was claimed that your spirit would forever reside in the realm of fairies.

If you want to go 'fairy spotting' there are many sites throughout the British Isles and Ireland that are reputed for their fairies.  This website is really good for detailing places that fairies have been said to dwell.  If you do go, I'd love to hear about your experiences.

Next time I'll tell you about fairy changelings and the fairy realm, the Otherworld.  If there are any subjects you would like me to cover in the future, I'd love to hear from you.