On the Fairy Road

An exploration of historic and modern Fairy beliefs, and more generally Irish-American and Celtic folk beliefs, from both an academic and experiential perspective.

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Witches, Fairies, and Hallowe'en

 When people think of Halloween, or from a more pagan perspective Samhain, the image of witches comes quickly to mind and it may be the single day of the year most strongly associated with witches in Western culture. Yet there is another layer to Halloween that also intersects with witchcraft and witches but isn't as commonly acknowledged in mainstream culture and that is fairies. Halloween and the general period of time around Halloween has long been known in the folklore and folk practices of the various Celtic-language speaking countries to be a time when the Good Folk are more active and more present.

The connection between witches and fairies more generally is complex and multi layered. Scottish witches who were brought to trial mentioned dealing with fairies as often as dealing with demons and were as likely to say they had sworn themselves to the Queen of King of Fairy as to the Christian Devil. This is discussed in Emma Wilby's books 'Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits' and 'The Visions of Isobel Gowdie' and touched on in Davies 'Popular Magic' which all review various material from the Scottish witchcraft trials in which confessed witches talk about their connections to the fairies. We also see references to both Irish witches and mná feasa [wise women] who learned their skill from the Good Neighbours, as well as specialists called fairy doctors in English who were supposed to have been taught by the fairies (Daimler, 2014). This overlap, briefly summarized here, was one where the witch might both serve Fairy and also be served by it. 

Just as witches were connected to fairies, Halloween was a holiday that was connected to both groups. Several confessed witches said that they gathered on Halloween for the purpose of dancing, celebrating, and meeting with supernatural powers; these dances occured in sacred places and featured ring dances around a focal point which might be a neolithic stone or else a mythic figure (McNeill, 1956). It was also a time when the fairies were reputed to be much more active, especially the more dangerous sorts. The púca would claim all berries left on the vines by fouling them, so that as Kevin Danaher explains "It was called púca night and oiche na sprideanna (spirit night) because of the old people's belief that both the fairies and the spirits of the dead were active then" (Danaher, 1972, p200). Danaher also mentions that the fairies would spoil all fruit and plants left after Halloween and that a portion was always left for them, either out by the door or in the fields, as an offering to ensure their favor and a good year to come (Danaher, 1972). This is the time that all the fairy raths, or hills, open up and the inhabitants parade from one hill to the next playing music which some people can hear (Danaher, 1972; McNeill, 1961) Anyone who had been kidnapped into Fairy could be freed within the first year and a day from when they were taken, but the spells to do so were the strongest on Halloween (McNeill, 1961). This also the time according to some Scottish lore that the fairies paid their teind, or rent, to Hell in which they might offer up humans they had taken in place of their own members. 

  It's also worth keeping in mind that while we currently tend to think of Halloween as a single day the subject is a bit more complicated than that. Evidence suggests that the holiday was likely originally at least a three day celebration, as we see current folk celebrations occurring across a period of dates between 31 October and 2 November. There is also the issue of the calendar change that happened in the 18th century and moved everything back by 11 days, meaning that the Halloween we celebrate today would have taken place on what is now 11 November several hundred years ago; we see this practice continued in some areas that still hold to the 'old date' of Halloween. The continued importance of this older date, as well as the fairy connection, is also reflected in some modern folk associations between November 11th and the Fairy Queen NicNevin in Scotland. 

For those witches who work with the Good People seeking to celebrate Halloween - by any name - I think it's important to try to remember these layers and connections between the date and the folklore of the fairies. There are so many possible ways to incorporate the older folkloric practices into the modern day, from leaving out proper offerings to dancing out under the dark sky. We can re-weave these old connections into something powerful today with a little bit of effort, and I think we can and should make that effort. As we move forward again into another Samhain I feel the air changing, not only growing colder but also more eldritch as the fairy folk come to claim their yearly tithe of the harvest. I am looking forward to going out under the waning moon, offering some of my own harvest, and seeing what my will join me in my dance this year. 

 

References:
McNeill, F., (1956) The Silver Bough vol.1
McNeill, F., (1961) . The Silver Bough, vol 3
Danaher, K., (1972) The Year in Ireland
Daimler, M., (2014) The Witch, the Bean Feasa, and the Fairy Doctor in Irish Culture. Air n-Aithesc vol 1 issue 2, 2014

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Morgan has been a practicing witch since the early 90's with a focus on the Fairy Faith and fairylore. She has written over two dozen non-fiction and fiction books on topics related to Irish mythology, witchcraft, fairy folklore, and related subjects. Morgan has also taught workshops on these same topics across the United States and internationally. In her spare time she likes to study the Irish language in both its modern and historic forms.

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