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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Respect, Fear, and Fairies

The Fair Folk are once again seeing a surge in popularity across paganism and with this higher profile has come an array of conversations about them and particularly the risk they may represent. For myself I am thrilled to see many of the younger witches out there advocating caution or even fear around the Gentry, but I have seen some people pushing back against that, particularly in the witchcraft community. Its an interesting thing to watch, as someone who grew up with a healthy caution around these beings and who has worked for years to speak about that caution and respect in every possible forum. 

I suspect that the disconnect here is both generational and cultural. If you are part of a culture that still believes in and understands these beings through the lens of older belief then you likely grew up with an understanding that they were or could be dangerous. If you are in the newest generation of witches and pagans then you may have started to run across more accurate folklore as well, as more urban fantasy1 takes inspiration from older folklore and as more advocates for traditional fairy views are speaking up. However there was a period in the 1990's and 2000's especially where most witchcraft books in the US discussed the Good Neighbours in very different terms, usually through the post-Victorian lens of guides and minor spirits. That era has produced a view among some which still persists that these beings shouldn't be feared but seen as natural friends of a witch. It isn't entirely wrong but it does lend itself to gross oversimplification and confusion, and sadly to a continued emphasis on anthropocentrism and diminishment of the fairies. 

It has to be said that its impossible to really make a blanket statement on this subject. As I like to say the first rule of Fairy is that there's an exception to every rule. Should you be cautious of fairies? Yes, of course. But how cautious varies from 'they might annoy you' to 'they will kill you' and that's a lot of diversity to try to make a broad claim about. As I've said repeatedly the term fairy (or fae) is a general term not a specific and applies as widely as the term animal in the human world. There's as much difference between an Asrai and a Each Uisce as there is between a mouse and a wolf. what is true for one type of fairy being may not be true for another and the potential risk presented by one kind may be considerably less than that presented by another. We must all be very careful not to generalize our own experiences out and assume that all fairies fit the mould created by the specific beings we are interacting with. 

Getting back to witches and fairies, there is a long established and important connection there. Emma Wilby in her book 'Cunningfolk and Familiar Spirits' discusses this as does Owen Davies in "Popular Magic: Cunningfolk in English History'. Yeats and Lady Wilde also discuss the connection between witches and fairies in Irish folklore. It is inarguable that fairies have played a significant and pivotal role in some early modern witchcraft practices and still do so in some modern witchcraft and paganism. It is important, I think, to understand though that these examples come from a specific context in which these beings had an inherent respect and fear attached to them which played into how witches connected to and related to these beings. These were not and are not the fairies of popular western culture but beings that are ambiguous, ambivalent, and potentially both helpful and dangerous. People who feel drawn to this shouldn't balk from it but should have that awareness that fairywork isn't a game of pokemon where you're out trying to collect them all and they all are super eager to join you. Witchcraft with fairies was serious work, as any work with spirits should be, and had both a cost and consequences.

Respect. One of the keys to successfully interacting with the Good Folk, whether or not you are a witch, is respect. They are powerful Otherworldly beings, even the weaker ones, and they deserve to be approached with and treated with a basic level of respect. In this area it's honestly best to look at this the same way you would for other humans - don't be unnecessarily rude, don't assume, don't be demanding. Basic respect seems like common sense but it is something I often see lacking in the way that people approach and interact with the fae folk. There's an ingrained sense entitlement by the human that assumes the fairy not only will help with any small random task but also very much wants to. If you actually stop and think about it, its disrespectful to ask an immortal being with its own life and agency to handle your petty little details of life. If you have a firmly established relationship with these beings, or some of them anyway, then you may be a slightly different position around asking favours but I have seen spells out there that suggest calling in a random fairy to guard a person's pet or property for no other reason that because the witch is telling them to and that isn't respectful in my opinion.  

Fear vs Respect  I suspect where part of the problem lies with this subject is people who confuse fear and respect. I always advocate for respect and appreciation of the potential risks, and I think that is sometimes interpreted as advocating fear. However that is not my intention; I think we can acknowledge the risks of a thing or practice without that immediately equating to fear of it. I can respect the danger that bears or tornados represent without being excessively afraid of them. This is another area where looking to humans can provide a helpful template: I don't fear humans but I am aware that individual humans and groups of humans can be extremely dangerous. I can have that awareness and use it to stay safe without living in constant fear of every human around me. It's about nuance and I think that's something that is too often lost in this conversation, where people only seem able to have that dichotomous view, either abject fear or subjecating superiority. We need to refind the idea of respect that doesn't diminish the fairies or place them in a box labeled '100% safe'.

Fear  That said I would much rather see fear than foolishness around fairies. Fear may be an overreaction but at least it proves a person knows the power of the Good Neighbours, rather than treating them like an Otherworldly Alexa or Siri, just perpetually waiting around until some human needs them. You shouldn't fear bears, necessarily, but better to fear them than to run up and try to pet a wild one because you decided you have a spiritual connection to them. Across folklore into modern accounts fairies can and will cause harm ranging from madness, blindness, illness, terrible luck, to outright death. Fear will keep you safe sometimes. I'm not sorry to see fear being more common around fairies, if we can't have that nuanced respect. 

If I have a choice between advocating fear or advocating diminishment, I will always advocate fear. I would rather see people leaning towards too much caution than treating these beings as servants and lesser powers. But I will also always advocate for working with these beings because I feel like they are intrinsic to not only my personal practice but also some flavours of witchcraft. There are some people who will always be drawn to this and are arguably meant to be doing this, to engaging with these beings, communicating with them, and dealing with them. I do not see any contradiction here. 
We shouldn't be overly afraid, but we should be canny and wise and respectful.

 

 

1- I don't usually advocate looking to fiction for fairy material as even when its based on folklore it isn't very accurate but I do acknowledge that many people do draw their knowledge from that source

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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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