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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The Fairy Faith, Universality, and Racism

 

The most pernicious thing about racism and white supremacy may be the way that they get into absolutely everything in US culture, even things we might assume – or want to assume – are impervious to such influences. This is true of the fairy faith, that set of beliefs and practices connected to the fey folk which were brought to the US with Europeans and can be found in parallels of native American beliefs. Sadly I have seen this expressed over the years in various ways, usually intended to uphold the idea of white as normative and to push out people of colour who may be interested in fairylore or fairy based spirituality. I’ve always been a vocal opponent of such attitudes and today I’d like to tackle this directly.

When we look at the breadth of folklore surrounding fairies and modern anecdotal accounts we find several important indicators of what we may label ‘universality’, that is being shared by all humanity.  Anecdotal accounts of fairy encounters – looking at Celtic language culture fairies here – have never been limited to people within the group those fairies are most connected to. We can find stories of people travelling and encountering fairy beings in areas foreign to them, for example. If we look to the United States we find stories of Europeans encountering native beings that fit the general definition of the word fairy as well, indicating that the strongest factor may be where you are not who you are. Although related to that we do also see stories of fairies that moved across oceans or continents with groups who believed in them, and then of people in the new area having encounters with them despite not sharing the same cultural background.

The main argument I see by people with a racist agenda is that fairies are tied explicitly to one ethnic or racial group – the alfar only for the Norse, for example – and therefore that those beings somehow belong to that one group in a literal sense. This is sometimes expressed through the argument that all Otherworldly beings are actually ancestral spirits and as such only care about or will interact with humans descended from them. This often becomes a sort of rough gatekeeping whereby people interested in connecting to these beings are shunted away to something else – perhaps with the tired old saw of ‘start with your own heritage’ – justified by the human arguing that the fairies wouldn’t be interested in or respond to the new person based on their ethnicity or race. In other cases I have seen it argued that artwork should always depict pale or white skin as the norm among fairies.

Let’s pull these ideas apart shall we? The idea that a type of fairy being is tied completely to one human ethnicity or group ignores the fact that these beings are generally rooted in a culture, not a racial group. And cultures, even ones we often view as tight knit or closed to outsiders, do generally allow for adoption, not to mention that there isn’t and has never been purity within cultural groups; humans have always travelled and intermixed with each other. In mythology when the Gaels first came to Ireland it was actually expected by the Gods there that they would adopt the Gods of their new land* who clearly didn’t care about human concerns of race or ethnicity. Anyone of any background can be part of a culture they live in or are accepted into. This leads into the ancestral idea. Well, firstly folklore indicates that while some fairies may be dead humans or similar many are not and never where human; that aside however in stories of the Good Folk we see a propensity to steal human babies and adults with no apparent concern for the person’s heritage, and once stolen those people are usually believed to join the fairies’ ranks. Even if we credit the idea that the fairies are ancestral spirits its clear that that is not a monolithic concept but something fluid that is constantly taking in fresh members. The idea that fairies should always be depicted as white is easily countered by reading actual folklore where we find stories of fairies who are green, tan, ‘nut brown’, dark, as well as the previously mentioned white and have an array of hair and eye colours, not to mention animal forms that are equally diverse.

Ultimately the word ‘fairy’ is an English word of course but like Gods can be applied (with varying degrees of accuracy) to beings across the globe. The concept behind the word is one that seems universal to human spirituality and experience – all cultures have their Otherworldly beings, their nature spirits, their not-gods. And when we study these beings in diverse cultures we often find many striking similarities, suggesting perhaps that they are not unique cultural iterations of belief but rather a wider independently existing phenomena. And that phenomena, by any name in any language, is not restricted to one human ethnic group, or put another way fairies can be believed in and experienced by anyone. This is backed up not only by folklore but also by anecdotal accounts that reflect actual experiences and show that fairies interact with diverse humans and that they themselves are diverse beings.

Racism and white supremacy have no place in the fairy faith and we must never mistake the preservation of traditional cultural beliefs for the exclusion of any group of people. In my opinion the only way to preserve the older cultural beliefs is to spread them, as far as possible, so that they will be passed on widely and continued into new generations. I may rail against popculture eroding fairy beliefs but I will never gatekeep who can or should believe in or connect to fairies. They are for everyone with an interest in them and the desire to delve into the stories and practices.

 

 

*you can read this in the Lebor Gabala Erenn, when the Milesians encounter the Goddesses of sovereignty and all but one are willing to swear to them; the one hold out argues that they should stay with their own Gods and he is drowned for his refusal.

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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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