The Changing View of Fairies
As an analogy, consider that many have observed a similar phenomenon with angels. Biblical angels are warriors. They are imposing and intimidating figures.
The Victorian era stripped angels of their image of strength and imposed a soft, dainty, infantile nature to them.
Similarly, fairies had a much different image prior to the Victorian age. They were often seen as dangerous and viewed with suspicion.
They could be beautiful or very ugly. Sometimes fairies were construed with other creatures, such as the trows (hideous trollish creatures) of Orkney.
The Origin of Elves and Fairies
In his heavily researched book called Elves, Wights, and Trolls, Kvedulf Gundarsson mentions that Scandinavian alfs (from whence we get the English word elf) and the Celtic sidhe were both initially related to the Neolithic practice of the worship of the dead buried in mounds.
He says that at the time of the late Stone Age “the material cultures [of the Norse and Celts] were virtually identical: it is possible that the sidhe and some of the alfs may once have been related” however as time progressed and they became separate and distinct figures, they developed different connotations within each respective culture.
Within folkloric traditions “Nordic mound-alfs feel welcoming to their kin; the sidhe feel indifferent” (Gundarsson, 2).
Christianity Changed Fairies to Demons
The fact that Christianity came to Britain very early means that beliefs in these spirits would have been altered much earlier than in areas where indigenous beliefs continued to flourish for centuries.
We do know that local folklore and customs were allowed to continue under initial conversion to Catholicism.
In fact, there are records that demonstrate the tactic of the Church was to simply whitewash pagan customs with a Christian veneer.
A letter from Pope Gregory I to Abbot Mellitus in the late 6th century directly instructs English church leaders to keep the pagan houses of worship in their original place, simply remove the idols and replace them with relics of saints:
Tell Augustine that he should be no means destroy the temples of the gods but rather the idols within those temples.
Let him, after he has purified them with holy water, place altars and relics of the saints in them.
For, if those temples are well built, they should be converted from the worship of demons to the service of the true God…
The Reformation's Assault on Folk Belief
When we move forward in time to the Reformation, however, we see another shift in popular belief.
In his paper published in the academic journal “Folklore” in 1921, “Mingling of Fairy and Witch Beliefs,” J.A. MacCulloch (author of the still popular book “The Religion of the Ancient Celts”) discusses the view of fairies held by Scottish witch hunters and demonologists during and after the Reformation.
Although the Inquisition was a decidedly Catholic endeavor, MacCulloch points out that it “never reached Scotland” and that pre-Reformation “trials for sorcery were few in number… Regular trials for witchcraft came in with the Reformation.”
In other words, common folk beliefs of fairies had become combined with Christian beliefs of Satan, hell, and demons. Therefore, any person found to be communicating with a fairy (a folk occurrence that had been common for centuries if not longer) was suddenly considered Satanic.
Mainland Europe’s Calvinism, called “Calvin’s gloomy creed” by MacCulloch, had been adopted with great zeal in Scotland (p234).
However, Scotland had zealots of her own pushing puritanical ideologies which bordered on obsession.
John Knox was a well-known hunter of witches. Ironically the fervor became so intense that no one was safe, and he himself was accused (McQuiston, 23).
But one of the most adamant of them all was the famous King James. Known as King James I when he inherited the English throne, he was previously titled James VI in Scotland.
When monarchs make religious zealotry a component of their reign, it generally translates into the suffering of their subjects. Thus James VI’s obsession with witches and demons brought the terror of witch hunting to Scotland.
King James' Obsession with Witches and "Demonic" Fairies
Before commissioning his famous King James Bible, James VI literally wrote the book on demons. He read the many other books on demonology available at the time before penning his own “Demonologie.”
His volume very clearly demonstrates “the tendency to make fairyland a province of Satan's kingdom” (MacCulloch, 239).
James apparently had an obsession with witches, as he was known to attend witch trials and made their persecution a hallmark of his reign.
James discusses the evils of fairies (spelled “Phairie” in his text) in Chapter V of his “Demonlogie”:
But how can it be then, that sundrie Witches have gone to death with that confession, that they have been transported with the Phairie to such a hill, which opening, they went in, and there saw a faire Queene, who being now lighter, gave them a stone that had sundrie vertues, which at sundrie times hath bene produced in judgement?
James insists that any person’s experiences in fairyland are delusions of the devil.
Having willingly entered into an interaction with the devil is grounds for execution.
Ergo, having a conversation with the fairies (albeit in a dream or hallucination, or sometimes even an odd looking stranger could be thought to be a fairy man) was punishable by death.
This is the political climate of the late 16th and early 17th centuries in Scotland, and we can see that it is a complete reversal of the approach taken by the Roman Catholic Church during the previous millennium.
Fairies and Familiars
Another spirit often entwined with fairies were familiar spirits. Emma Wilby, a modern scholar who has dedicated intensive study to Scottish and English witch trials, explains that fairies were often confused with witch’s familiars in her article “The Witch’s Familiar and the Fairy in Early Modern England and Scotland.”
She asserts that “the evidence suggests that for those with a particularly obscure grasp of Christian teaching the cosmos would have been peopled by a medley of supernatural figures, of both Christian and pre-Christian origin, with little or no discrimination being made between them…” (p301).
But, as Wilby explains, it seems both commoners as well as church leaders and elites had no conception of which beliefs were old and which were new during this period. In effect, it was a confusing mess of pre-Christian religion becoming distorted and misinterpreted by a now Christian population who clearly did not understand either religion very well.
Views on Fairies and Witchcraft Today
We now understand that accused witches were often the innocent victims of political motives or jealous neighbors.
However, there is strong evidence that at least some of the accused were people carrying on traditions of healing, herbalism, and possibly shamanic practices from the pre-Christian era.
Communing with the spirits of the land and ancestors is a practice almost universal in indigenous world cultures.
Fairies and other nature spirits were a remnant from a distant past – a past that threatened the new Protestant worldview.
Protestant reformers were absolutely correct in their assessment that Catholicism had allowed elements of paganism to continue.
Recommended from my own library:
- Abkarloo, Bengt - Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The Period of the Witch Trials
- Hendersen, Luanne - Scottish Fairy Belief: A History
- Fletcher, Richard - The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity
- MacCulloch, J.A.-The Religion of the Ancient Celts and The Celtic and Scandinavian Religions
- Wilby, Emma - Cunning-Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic