Fairy Taboos

[Note: This is taken from W.Y. Evans Wentz's The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries.]

We find that taboos, or prohibitions of a religious and social character, are as common in the living Fairy-Faith as exorcisms. The chief one is the taboo against naming the fairies, which inevitably results in the use of euphemisms, such as ‘good people’, ‘gentry’, ‘people of peace’, Tylwyth Teg (‘Fair Folk ‘), or bonnes dames (‘good ladies ‘). A like sort of taboo, with its accompanying use of euphemisms, existed among the Ancients, e.g. among the Egyptians and Babylonians, and early Celts as well, in a highly developed form; and it exists now among the native peoples of Australia, Polynesia, Central Africa, America, in Indian systems of Yoga, among modern Greeks, and, in fact, almost everywhere where there are vestiges of a primitive culture.  And almost always such a taboo is bound up with animistic and magical elements, which seem to form its background, just as it is in our own evidence.

To discuss name taboo in all its aspects would lead us more deeply into magic and comparative folk-lore than we have yet gone, and such discussion is unnecessary here. We may therefore briefly state that the root of the matter would seem to be that the name and the dread power named are so closely associated in the very concrete thought of the primitive culture that the one virtually is the other: just as one inevitably calls up the other for the modern thinker, so it is that, in the world of objective fact, for the primitive philosopher the one is equivalent to the other. The primitive man, in short, has projected his subjective associations into reality. As regards euphemisms, the process of development possibly is that first you employ any substitute name, and that secondly you go on to employ such a substitute name as will at the same time be conciliatory. In the latter case, a certain anthropomorphosing of the power behind the taboo would seem to be involved.

Next in prominence comes the food taboo; and to this, also, there are non-Celtic parallels all the world over, now and in ancient times. We may take notice of three very striking modern parallels :- A woman visited her dead brother in Panoi, the Polynesian Otherworld, and ‘he cautioned her to eat nothing there, and she returned ‘  A Red Man, Ahaktah, after an apparent death of two days’ duration, revived, and declared that he had been to a beautiful land of tall trees and singing-birds, where he met the spirits of his forefathers and uncle. While there, he felt hunger, and seeing in a bark dish some wild rice, wished to eat of it, but his uncle would allow him none. In telling about this psychical adventure, Ahak-tah said :- ‘ Had I eaten of the food of spirits, I never should have returned to earth.’  Also a New Zealand woman visited the Otherworid in a trance, and her dead father whom she met there ordered her to eat no food in that land, so that she could return to this world to take care of her child.

All such parallels, like their equivalents in Celtic belief, seem to rest on this psychological and physiological conception in the folk-mind. Human food is what keeps life going in a human body; fairy food is what keeps life going in a fairy body; and since what a man eats makes him what he is physically, so eating the food of Fairyland or of the land of the dead will make the eater partake of the bodily nature of the beings it nourishes. Hence when a man or woman has once entered into such relation or communion with the Otherworid of the dead, or of fairies, by eating their food, his or her physical body by a subtle transformation adjusts itself to the new kind of nourishment, and becomes spiritual like a spirit’s or fairy’s body, so that the eater cannot re-enter the world of the living. A study of food taboos confirms this conclusion.

A third prominent taboo, the iron taboo, has been explained by exponents of the Pygmy Theory as pointing to a prehistoric race in Celtic lands who did not know iron familiarly, and hence venerated it so that in time it came to be religiously regarded as very efficacious against spirits and fairies. Undoubtedly there may be much reason in this explanation, which gives some ethnological support to the Pygmy Theory. Apparently, however, it is only a partial explanation of iron taboo in general, because, in many cases, iron in ancient religious rites certainly had magical properties attributed to it, which to us are quite unexplainable from this ethnological point of view; and in Melanesia and in Africa, where iron is venerated now, the same explanation through ethnology seems far-fetched. But at present there seem to be no available data to explain adequately this iron taboo, though we have strong reasons for thinking that the philosophy underlying it is based on mystical conceptions of virtues attributed - reasonably or unreasonably - to various metals and precious stones, and that a careful examination of alchemical sciences would probably arrive at an explanation wholly psychological.

Besides many other miscellaneous taboos noticeable in the evidence, there is a place taboo which is prominent. Thus, if an Irishman cuts a thorn tree growing on a spot sacred to the fairies, or if he violates a fairy preserve of any sort, such as a fairy path, or by accident interferes with a fairy procession, illness and possibly death will come to his cattle or even to himself. In the same way, in Melanesia, violations of sacred spots bring like penalties: ‘ A man planted in the bush near Olevuga some coco-nut and almond trees, and not long after died,’ the place being a spirit preserve ; and a man in the Lepers’ Island lost his senses, because, as the natives believed, he had unwittingly trodden on ground sacred to Tagaro, and ‘the ghost of the man who lately sacrificed there was angry with him ‘. In this case the wizards were called in and cured the man by exorcisms,’ as Irishmen, or their cows, are cured by the exorcisms of ‘ fairy-doctors’ when ‘fairy-struck’ for some similar violation. The animistic background of place taboos in the Fairy-Faith is in these cases apparent.

Among Ancient Celts

In the evidence soon to be examined from the recorded Fairy-Faith, we shall find taboos of various kinds often more prominent than in the living Fairy-Faith.  So essential are they to the character of much of the literary and mythological matter with which we shall have to deal in the following chapters, that at this point some suggestions ought to be made concerning their correct anthropological interpretation.

Almost every ancient Irish taboo is connected with a king or with a great hero like Cuchulainn; and, in Ireland especially, all such kings and heroes were considered of divine origin, and as direct incarnations, or reincarnations of the Tuatha De Danann, the true Fairies, originally inhabitants of the Otherworid. (See our chapter vii.) As Dr. Frazer points out to have been the case among non-Celts, with whom the same theory of incarnated divinities has prevailed, royal taboos are to isolate the king from all sources of danger, especially from all magic and witchcraft, and they act in many cases ‘so to say, as electrical insulators’ to preserve him or heroes who are equally divine.

The early Celts recognized an intimate relationship between man and nature: unperceived by man, unseen forces - not dissimilar to what Melanesians call Mana- (looked on as animate and intelligent and frequently individual entities) guided every act of human life. It was the special duty of Druids to act as intermediaries between the world of men and the world of the Tuatha De Danann; and, as old Irish literature indicates clearly, it was through the exercise of powers of divination on the part of Druids that these declared what was taboo or what was unfavourable, and also what it was favourable for the divine king or hero to perform. As long as man kept himself in harmony with this unseen fairy-world in the background of nature, all was well; but as soon as a taboo was broken, disharmony in the relationship-which was focused in a king or hero - was set up; and when, as in the case of Cuchulainn, many taboos were violated, death was inevitable and not even the Tuatha De Danann could intercede.

Breaking of a royal or hero taboo not only affects the violator, but his subjects or followers as well: in some cases the king seems to suffer vicariously for his people. Almost every great Gaelic hero-a god or Great Fairy Being incarnate - is overshadowed with an impending fate, which only the strictest observance of taboo can avoid.

Irish taboo, and inferentially all Celtic taboo, dates back to an unknown pagan antiquity. It is imposed at or before birth, or again during life, usually at some critical period, and when broken brings disaster and death to the breaker. Its whole background appears to rest on a supernatural relationship between divine men and the Otherworid of the Tuatha De Danann; and it is very certain that this ancient relationship survives in the living Fairy-Faith as one between ordinary men and the fairy-world. Therefore, almost all taboos surviving among Celts ought to be interpreted psychologically or even psychically, and not as ordinary social regulations.


Food-sacrifice plays a very important role in the modern Fairy-Faith, being still practised, as our evidence shows, in each one of the Celtic countries. Without any doubt it is a survival from pagan times, when, as we shall observe later, propitiatory offerings were regularly made to the Tuatha De Danann as gods of the earth, and, apparently, to other orders of spiritual beings. The anthropological significance of such food-sacrifice is unmistakable.

With the same propitiatory ends in view as modern Celts now have in offering food to fairies, ancient peoples, e.g. the Greeks and Romans, maintained a state ritual of sacrifices to the gods, genii, daemons, and to the dead. And such sacrifices, so essential a part of most ancient religions, were based on the belief, as stated by Porphyry in his Treatise Concerning Abstinence, that all the various orders of gods, genii or daemons, enjoy as nourishment the odour of burnt offerings. And like the Fairy-Folk, the daemons of the air live not on the gross substance of food, but on its finer invisible essences, conveyed to them most easily on the altar-fire.  Socrates, Plato, Xenophon, and other leading Greeks, as well as the Romans of a like metaphysical school; unite in declaring the fundamental importance to the welfare of the State of regular sacrifices to the gods and to the daemons who control all natural phenomena, since they caused, if not neglected, abundant harvests and national prosperity. For unto the gods is due by right a part of all things which they give to man for his happiness.

The relation which the worship of ancestors held to that of the gods above, who are the Olympian Gods, the great Gods, and to the Gods below, who are the Gods of the Dead, and also to the daemons, and heroes or divine ancestors, is thus set forth by Plato in his Laws :- ‘ In the first place, we affirm that next after the Olympian Gods, and the Gods of the State, honour should be given to the Gods below.

Next to these Gods, a wise man will do service to the daemons or spirits, and then to the heroes, and after them will follow the sacred places of private and ancestral Gods, having their ritual according to law. Next comes the honour of living parents.’

It is evident from this direct testimony that the same sort of philosophy underlies food-sacrifice among the Celts and other peoples as we discovered underlying human-sacrifice, in our study of the Changeling Belief; and that the Tuatha De Danann in their true mythological nature, and fairies, their modern counterpart, correspond in all essentials to Greek and Roman gods, genii, and daemons, and are often confused with the dead.


The animistic character of the Celtic Legend of the Dead is apparent; and the striking likenesses constantly appearing in our evidence between the ordinary apparitional fairies and the ghosts of the dead show that there is often no essential and sometimes no distinguishable difference between these two orders of beings, nor between the world of the dead and fairyland. We reserve for our chapter on Science and Fairies the scientific consideration of the psychology of this relationship, and of the probability that fairies as souls of the dead and as ghosts of the dead actually exist and influence the living.


The chief anthropological problems connected with the modern Fairy-Faith, as our evidence presents it, have now been examined, at sufficient length, we trust, to explain their essential significance; and problems, to some extent parallel, connected with the ancient Fairy-Faith have likewise been examined. There remain, however, very many minor anthropological problems not yet touched upon; but several of the most important of these, e. g. various cults of gods, spirits, fairies, and the dead, and folk-festivals thereto related; the circular fairy-dance; or the fairy world as the Otherworld, or as Purgatory, will receive consideration in following chapters, and so will certain very definite psychological problems connected with dreams, and trance-like states, with supernormal lapse of time, and with seership. We may now sum up the results so far attained.

Whether we examine the Fairy-Faith as a whole or whether we examine specialized parts of it like those relating to the smallness of fairies, to changelings, to witchcraft and magic, to exorcisms, to taboos, and to food-sacrifice, in all cases comparative folk-lore shows that the beliefs composing it find their parallels the world over, and that fairy-like beings are objects of belief now not only in Celtic countries, but in Central Australia, throughout Polynesia, in Africa, among American Red Men, in Asia generally, in Southern, Western, and Northern Europe, and, in fact, wherever civilized and primitive men hold religious beliefs. From a rationalist point of view anthropologists would be inclined to regard the bulk of this widespread belief in spiritual beings as being purely mythical, but for us to do so and stop there would lead to no satisfactory solution: the origin of myth itself needs to be explained, and one of the chief objects of our study throughout the remainder of this book is to make an attempt at such an explanation, especially of Celtic myth.

Again, if we examine all fairy-like beings from a certain superficial point of view, or even from the mythological point of view, it is easy to discern that they are universally credited with precisely the same characters, attributes, actions, or powers as the particular peoples possess who have faith in them; and then the further fact emerges that this anthropomorphosing is due directly to the more immediate social environment: we see merely an anthropomorphically coloured picture of the whole of an age-long social evolution of the tribe, race, or nation who have fostered the particular aspect of this one world-wide folk-religion. But if we look still deeper, we discover as background to the myths and the social psychology a profound animism. This animism appears in its own environment in the shading away of the different fairy-like beings into spirits and ghosts of the departed. Going deeper yet, we find that such animistic beliefs as concern themselves exclusively with the realm of the dead are in many cases apparently so well founded on definite provable psychical experiences on the part of living men and women that the aid of science itself must be called in to explain them.


Copyright © World Spirituality · All Rights Reserved