The Faery Faith in Celtic Countries – Danu Forest and Dan Goodfellow

‘Some few weeks before Christmas, 1910, at midnight on a very dark night, we noticed two lights, about one hundred yards to our right…suddenly each of these lights expanded into the same sort of yellow luminous flame, about six feet high by four feet broad. In the midst of each flame we saw a radiant being having human form. Presently the lights moved toward one another and made contact, whereupon the two beings in them were seen to be walking side by side. The beings bodies were formed of a pure dazzling radiance, white like the radiance of the sun…’   

(Testimony from a County Kerry Seer)[1]

 

Britain and Ireland abound with spirits of every kind. Our Neolithic ancestors marked the land with standing stones, stone circles and barrow mounds – the ‘hollow hills’ of Faery – to mark the in-between places where ritual connection with the ancestors and the spirits of the land, the waters, and the skies could made and maintained. These were the liminal places, sacred entranceways to the spirit world, known as The Otherworld, in all its forms.

The Creideamh Sí (Irish for the ‘Faery Faith’) still exists and is an ancient tradition in Ireland, Scotland and other parts of the Celtic diaspora, based on honouring and conducting healthy relations with these spirit beings via simple household rituals and the giving of offerings, as well as working cures and more elaborate ceremonies. Much of the Faery Faith in these contexts has a basis in individual family and regional practices and can be closely entwined with the use of Irish, Welsh or Scots Gaelic languages. However, while these roots need honouring and respecting, the spirits only work with those they choose to and the door to Faery is never closed to those they call. Faery seers and healers have been practicing this tradition for centuries; their roots are in the very oldest of our tales and the honouring of the most sacred ancient parts of our land.  Contact with Faery leads us to an ever-deeper connection to the earth herself.

The Celtic Otherworld

While we often hear of faeries and other spirits coming from ‘The Otherworld’ in the Celtic traditions, in practice there are a great many regional variations and differences and it may be more accurate to discuss Celtic Otherworlds and Faery races, both in plural, in addition to a whole host of other spirits attached to trees, sacred springs and natural features of the landscape, as well as the local gods or Powers of Place, the Genius loci. The Roman writer Lucan recorded in 61AD that the Celtic Iron Age druids believed that after they died they would go to Orbe Alio, the ‘Other World’, which none the less was situated very much in the landscape itself and from which they would eventually be reborn.[2]  Later folklore and literature from early and later Medieval periods up to the present day point to a continuation of this belief in the Otherworld and the regular occurrence of spirits or Faeries – known as the Aos Sí (Irish), the Daoine Sìth (Scots) and the Tylwyth Teg (Welsh) among many others –  coming from and returning there at will. The Otherworld, whether it is one destination or many, can be found in a myriad of ways, though only to those favoured by the spirits. The penalties for incursion there are severe to those who are unwelcome, while others are guided there with friendship and honour. Sometimes the Otherworld is found at the bottom of lakes, by ascending a mountain, or it is reached by sailing over the sea or entering a ‘hollow hill’.  At other times, the wanderer may enter Faery quite unawares by walking through mist or being caught late in the wild places and being led astray. For traditional seers it may be entered by inner vision, either spontaneously or by seeking it in much the same way as shamanic journeying, by entering trance or by seeking a meditative or altered state of awareness while out in nature.

In Welsh lore there is recorded a system of three worlds much like the upper, middle and lower worlds of other shamanic cultures: Gwynfed, the white or blessed life, the upperworld; Abred, the middle mortal world; and Annwfn, the deep place, a place of transformation. It is in Annwfn, which historically may predate the other terms, that Faerie may be found. This is similar to the ancient tradition in what was once Celtic Gaul, where the three worlds were called Albios ‘heaven, white-world, upper-world’, Bitu ‘world of the living beings’ and Dubnos ‘lower-world, dark-world’. Dubnos may also be an etymological source for the word Annwfn. In Ireland the Otherworld was known by many names, including Tír na nÓg ‘land of youth’, Tír fo Thuinn ‘land under the wave’, and Emain Ablach ‘Isle of apples’, which is probably the origin of the British Otherworldly Avalon.

Faeries and the dead

Many accounts refer to a connection between the faeries, the spirits of the dead and the location of the ancestors. Sometimes the recently deceased have been seen within the Faery Mounds by seers, Faery workers or those taken there against their will. The realms of faeries and those of the ancestors may overlap or even be one and the same. This is hinted at in the faeries use of the ‘hollow hills’ which are usually Neolithic or Bronze Age barrow mounds or cairns, which were originally used to bury the dead and for shamanistic and seasonal ritual. The cross over between ancestors and faeries is also suggested by the fact that the faeries are often seen wearing the clothes of previous eras, most notably medieval dress and even earlier Dark age and Iron age armour.

Seeking faerie contact

If you would work with our indigenous spirits, of any form, connection to the land you are on is essential. Time spent in nature, in silence or making gifts of song or poetry as offerings are irreplaceable, and it is not really possible to make meaningful connections to the spirits if you do not honour the land and live as closely to it as you are able. Take note of the natural cycles of the moon and sun, of seasonal shifts and what grows in your area, including what animals live nearby and their cycles. In time you will find spots on the landscape that feel especially spirit touched; single hawthorn or oak trees are common spirit or faerie places, as are solitary rocks, places where water emerges from the earth, secluded woodland glades and other natural features. Seek to spend as much time in these places as possible, at all times of the day and night and at every season. Develop a relationship with the place as you would any other friend. Bring offerings and most of all, be still and listen. Faery and other spirit contact comes in many different ways but is marked by a gentle shift in awareness that once felt is unmistakeable. But it takes time, nature is patient and so must we be.

When you feel you have begun to make contact, seek out an ally or guide, sometimes known as a coimimechd, or co-walker.[3] This can be done in many ways and sometimes you will be aware that one has come to you already. However, using simple shamanic journeying techniques or seeking a guide in your inner vision can work perfectly well. Try working in a quiet place in nature and seek a deep meditative state of mind, breathing slowly and deeply to gently shift your awareness. Give it time and see what comes to you.

Offerings

Working with faeries and other British and Irish spirits is all about building relationship. As such, offerings are gifts of friendship and respect. Traditional offerings to the faeries include milk, cream, butter and fresh baked goods, especially bannocks. Tales abound of faeries visiting crofts and farmhouses asking to borrow such items; there is an ancient Iron Age practice found in Ireland of leaving large vats of ‘bog butter’ to the spirits of the bogs and marshes which is probably a precursor to this practice. That said, faeries especially love music and poetry and offerings of song and verse are also good. I have songs I sing only for certain beings in certain places and I notice that I am recognised by my songs, with the energy building each time I sing them.

Faery protection and taboos

There is a certain amount of etiquette and taboos regarding relations with Faery which if transgressed can lead to great harm; bad luck, ill health and even death, others simply result in losing faery or spirit contact never to be regained. One famous taboo is to never eat Faery food. As a teacher of Faery tradition, I must say I’m shocked how often people think this doesn’t apply to them; it seems a common thing for faeries to test someone by offering them food or other gifts without any mention of the cost. Never agree to anything or accept a gift without knowing what is required in exchange. What usually happens is the person’s practice and ability to journey or contact the faeries or spirits in vision becomes so scattered and so filled with their own ego fantasies as to become all but useless. Other times, it can have even worse effects on people’s mental health and general wellbeing. In some ways in Faerie you find what you bring with you – too much ego in the form of ignoring tradition and the advice of our ancestors (as the faeries see it- we already know its taboo because our ancestors knew) is not responded to with much kindness.

When working with faeries it’s important to limit or remove any electronic devices from the area, and have no iron or steel present. This seems to disconnect the flow of energy between you and banish faeries from an area. While many faerie spirits can be friendly and helpful others are not. Like a wary traveller in the human world, it’s important to take responsibility for ourselves and feel out what is safe and what is not based on common sense and on the connection we are experiencing rather than trusting exclusively to the guide book.  That said, seeking a guide or an ally you can trust is essential as a first step to any Faery contact and improves matters immensely.

Another taboo is concerning their favourite trees – the faery thorn or hawthorn. Many of these in Ireland and Scotland are considered sacred, a tradition also seen in Iceland. While not all hawthorns are Faery thorns, various lone hawthorn trees, especially if they grow upon ancient mounds or upon Iron Age hillforts are held as deeply sacred and even feared by their local human communities and to cut one down invites the harshest penalties from Faery. The last time I heard of a farmer dying and his wife having a psychotic break due to cutting down a Faery thorn was about 2016, in county Kerry. Many a road has been re-routed in Ireland and in Iceland, to protect a Faery thorn.

Should you ever need to protect yourself from faeries – and this should be done only in the last instance – use a piece of iron to draw a circle around yourself or use your inner vision to see yourself cutting a thread between you and the troublesome spirit. Other protection methods are to carry rowan on you or to hang a small equal armed rowan cross tied with red thread above your windows and doors.

Faerie ridden

Many a tale, both ancient and modern, tells of humans and livestock who are ‘faery ridden’. This can render animals unable to move and with humans, especially young women, results in them waking up every morning exhausted claiming to have been taken by faeries in the night. Others experience the poc sídhe – the faery stroke, where they feel paralysed or beaten, or were tormented throughout the night by their visitations. While there are sometimes no doubt logical and even societal explanations, this is strikingly similar to other shamanistic traditions around the world, where the spirits induce an illness in order to stimulate a shamanic initiation, or continually visit seers in order to torment them or pass on messages or gain power. Sometimes the symptoms of those who are faerie ridden also resemble that of ‘soul loss’ where a part of the soul of the person resides elsewhere and has left the body due to shock, trauma, illness or theft. In cases like this, protective rituals and soul retrieval techniques can prove very successful and tales concerning the seeking of or the return of loved ones from Faery may be visionary examples of this in practice.

Faery Glamour

Perhaps the greatest peril when working with faery is glamouring. This can take many forms: getting lost in an area you know well; being deceived in some way about an object or an agreement you’ve made, are common examples. However, a more frequent effect of glamouring is upon our own egos. When working with Faery we need to be aware that not all we will be told or shown is true. A great deal of energy must be put into seeking out reliable faery guides and cultivating that self- knowledge, that feeling in your gut that tells you whether something is right or wrong. To the unwary, Faery may play havoc on a person’s sense of self; they may become beset with delusions, effectively ending their spiritual journey on this path and possibly even endangering their mental health. When working spiritually, animistically and/or shamanically with Faery it’s good to remember that quote from Lord of the Rings “All that glitters is not gold” – beware of the glitter! It is an earth-based tradition that if worked with well and with respect, patience and dedication, can bring you a closer alignment with and into a more present relationship with yourself, as well as with all life and spirits around you. But to work with Faery, you need to stay grounded.

That said, to encounter Faery is to tap into energetic currents that will in time guide you into communion with the very soul of the land, fill you with wonder and inner illumination, and grant you renewal on a very deep level. There is something in Faery that calls to us for healing and wholeness, and once touched by its transformative and vivifying presence our lives are never the same.

‘How beautiful they are,
The lordly ones
Who dwell in the hills,
In the hollow hills…
As they keep their hosting
With laughing cries
In pale places
Under the moon.’

(Midir’s song, by Fiona Macleod. 1920)

 

Author Biography

Danu Forest is a traditional Wisewoman, and Celtic shaman as well as an Ard BanDrui (archdruidess) in the Druid Clan of Dana. She lives in the wild marshes surrounding the legendary Glastonbury Tor and is the author of several books including Gwyn ap Nudd(Moon Books), ‘Celtic Tree Magic’ ( Llewellyn), ‘The Magical Year’ (Watkins) and The Druid Shaman ( Moon Books). For more info, courses, ceremonies and consultations including keening and psychopomp work go to Danu Forest

Artist Biography

Dan Goodfellow is an internationally published artist and illustrator, working and living in Glastonbury UK. He has illustrated for LLewellyn Worldwide, Watkins Publishing and Bloomsbury, and has recently drawn the first two issues of the comicbook Highlander 3030 for Emerald Star Comics. Dan runs Mens Mysteries shamanic workshops in the UK and when not drawing furiously, can be found with his drum on Glastonbury Tor. For more information and to buy artwork please visit Dan Goodfellow.

 

This article first appeared in the 10th Anniversary edition of Indie Shaman magazine, Issue 41.

 


[1]                Testimony from a County Kerry Seer. W.Y. Evans-Wentz, The fairy faith in Celtic countries. (Dover publications, 2002.) p.83.

[2]                Lucan’s Pharsalia book I line 457 onwards.

[3]                The secret commonwealth of elves fauns and fairies. Robert Kirk 1691 (2007)


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