Evidence for Celtic Fairies

By W.Y. Evans Wentz.


‘During all these centuries the Celt has kept in his heart some affinity with the mighty beings ruling in the Unseen, once so evident to the heroic races who preceded him. His legends and faery tales have connected his soul with the inner lives of air and water and earth, and they in turn have kept his heart sweet with hidden influence.’
- A. E.


Method of presentation-The logical verdict-Trustworthiness of legends

The Fairy-Faith held by the highly educated Celt as well as by the Celtic peasant—The evidence is complete and adequate - Its analysis - The Fairy-Tribes dealt with - Witnesses and their testimony: from Ireland, with introductton by Dr. Douglas Hyde; from Scotland, with introduction by Dr. Alexander Carmichael; from the isle of Man, with introduction by Miss Sophia Morrison; from Wales, with introduction by the Right Hon. Sir John Rhys; from Cornwall, with introduction by Mr. Henry Jenner; and from Brittany, with introduction by Professor Anatole Le Braz.


VARIOUS possible plans have presented themselves for setting forth the living Fairy-Faith as I have found it during my travels in the six Celtic countries among the people who hold it. To take a bit here and a bit there from a miscellaneous group of psychological experiences, fairy legends and stories which are linked together almost inseparably in the mind of the one who tells them, does not seem at all satisfactory, nor even just, in trying to arrive at a correct result.. Classification under various headings, such, for example, as Fairy Abductions, Changelings, or Appearances of Fairies, seems equally unsatisfactory; for as soon as the details of folk-lore such as I am presenting are isolated from one another-even though brought together in related groups-they must be rudely torn out of their true and natural environment, and divorced from the psychological atmosphere amidst which they were first presented by the narrator. The same objection applies to any plan of dividing the evidence into (1) that which is purely legendary; (2) that which is second-hand or third-hand evidence from people who claim to have seen fairies, or to have been in Fairyland or under fairy influences; and (3) that which is first-hand evidence from actual percipients: these three classes of evidence are so self-evident that every reader will be able to distinguish each class for himself as it occurs, and a mechanical classification by us is unnecessary. So no plan seems so good as the plan I have adopted of permitting all witnesses to give their own testimony in their own way and in its native setting, and then of classifying and weighing such testimony according to the methods of comparative religion and the anthropological sciences.

In most cases, as examination will show, the evidence is so clear that little or no comment is necessary. Most of the evidence also points so much in one direction that. the only verdict which seems reasonable is that the Fairy-Faith belongs to a doctrine of souls; that is to say, that Fairyland is a state or condition, realm or place, very much like, if not the same as, that wherein civilized and uncivilized men alike place the souls of the dead, in company with other invisible beings such as gods, daemons, and all sorts of good and bad spirits. Not only do both educated and uneducated Celtic seers so conceive Fairyland, but they go much further, and say that Fairyland actually exists as an invisible world within which the visible world is immersed like an island in an unexplored ocean, and that it is peopled by more species of living beings than this world, because incomparably more vast and varied in its possibilities.

We should be prepared in hearing the evidence to meet with some contradictions and a good deal of confusion, for many of the people who believe in such a strange world as we have just described, and who think they sometimes have entered it or have seen some of its inhabitants, have often had no training at all in schools or colleges. But when we hear legendary tales which have never been recorded save in the minds of unnumbered generations of men, we ought not on that account to undervalue them; for often they are better authorities and more trustworthy than many an ancient and carefully inscribed manuscript in the British Museum; and they are probably far older than the oldest book in the world. Let us, then, for a time, forget that there are such things as libraries and universities, and betake ourselves to the Celtic peasant for instruction, living close to nature as he lives, and thinking the things which he thinks.

But the peasant will not be our only teacher, for we shall also hear much of first importance from city folk of the highest intellectual training. It has become, perhaps always has been in modern times, a widespread opinion, even among some scholars, that the belief in fairies is the property solely of simple, uneducated country-folk, and that people who have had ‘a touch of education and a little common sense knocked into their heads’, to use the ordinary language, ‘wouldn’t be caught believing in such nonsense.’ This same class of critics used to make similar remarks about people who said there were ghosts, until the truth of another ‘stupid superstition’ was discovered by psychical research. So in this chapter we hope to correct this erroneous opinion about the Fairy-Faith, an opinion chiefly entertained by scholars and others who know not the first real fact about fairies, because they have never lived amongst the people who believe in fairies, but derive all their information from books and hearsay. In due order the proper sort of witnesses will substantiate this position, but before coming to their testimony we may now say that there are men and women in Dublin, in other parts of Ireland, in Scotland, in the Isle of Man, and in Brythonic lands too, whom all the world knows as educated leaders in their respective fields of activity, who not only declare their belief that fairies were, but that fairies are; and some of these men and women say that they have the power to see fairies as real spiritual beings.

In the evidence about to be presented there has been no selecting in favour of any one theory; it is presented as discovered. The only liberty taken with some of the evidence has been to put it into better grammatical form, and sometimes to recast an ambiguous statement when I, as collector, had in my own mind no doubt as to its meaning. Translations have been made as literal as possible; though sometimes it has been found better to offer the meaning rather than what in English would be an obscure colloquialism or idiomatic expression. The method pursued in seeking the evidence has been to penetrate as deeply and in as natural a way as possible the thoughts of the people who believe in fairies and like beings, by living among them and observing their customs and ways of thought, and recording what seemed relevant to the subject under investigation-chance expressions, and legends told under various ordinary conditions - rather than to collect long legends or literary fairy-stories. For these last the reader is referred to the many excellent works on Celtic folk-lore. We have sought to bring together, as perhaps has not been done before, the philosophy of the belief in fairies, rather than the mere fairy-lore itself, though the two cannot be separated. In giving the evidence concerning fairies, we sometimes give evidence which, though akin to it and thus worthy of record, is not strictly fairy-lore. All that we have omitted from the materials in the form first taken down are stories and accounts of things not sufficiently related to the world of Faerie to be of value here.

In no case has testimony been admitted from a person who was known to be unreliable, nor even from a person who was thought to be unreliable. Accordingly, the evidence we are to examine ought to be considered good evidence so far as it goes; and since it represents almost all known elements of the Fairy-Faith and contains almost all the essential elements upon which the advocates of the Naturalistic Theory, of the Pygmy Theory, of the Druid Theory, of the Mythological Theory, as well as of our own Psychological Theory, must base their arguments, we consider it very adequate evidence. Nearly every witness is a Celt who has been made acquainted with the belief in fairies through direct contact with people who believe in them, or through having heard fairy-traditions among his own kindred, or through personal psychological experiences. And it is exceedingly fortunate for us that an unusually large proportion of these Celtic witnesses are actual percipients and natural seers, because the eliminations from the Fairy-Faith to be brought about in chapter iii by means of an anthropological analysis of evidence will be so extensive that, scientifically and strictly speaking, there will remain as a residual or unknown quantity, upon which our final conclusion must depend, solely the testimony of reliable seer-witnesses. That is to say, no method of anthropological dissection of the evidence can force aside consideration of the ultimate truth which may or may not reside in the testimony of sane and thoroughly reliable seer-witnesses.

Old and young, educated and uneducated, peasant and city-bred, testify to the actual existence of the Celtic Fairy-Faith; and the evidence from Roman Catholics stands beside that from Protestants, the evidence of priests supports that of scholars and scientists, peasant seers have testified to the same kind of visions as highly educated seers; and what poets have said agrees with what is told by business men, engineers, and lawyers. But the best of witnesses, like ourselves, are only human, and subject to the shortcomings of the ordinary man, and therefore no claim can be made in any case to infallibility of evidence: all the world over men interpret visions pragmatically and sociologically, or hold beliefs in accord with their own personal experiences; and are for ever unconsciously immersed in a sea of psychological influences which sometimes may be explainable through the methods of sociological inquiry, sometimes may be supernormal in origin and nature, and hence to be explained most adequately, if at all, through psychical research. Our study is a study of human nature itself, and, moreover, often of human nature in its most subtle aspects, which are called psychical; and the most difficult problem of all is for human nature to interpret and understand its own ultimate essence and psychological instincts. Our whole aim is to discover what reasonableness may or may not stand behind a belief so vast, so ancient, so common (contrary to popular non-Celtic opinion) to all classes of Celts, and so fundamental a shaping force in European history, religion, and social institutions.

When we state our conviction that the Fairy-Faith is common to all classes of Celts, we do not state that it is common to all Celts. The materialization of the age has affected the Fairy-Faith as it has affected all religious beliefs the world over. This has been pointed out by Dr. Hyde, by Dr. Carmichael, and by Mr. Jenner in their respective introductions for Ireland, Scotland, and Cornwall. Nevertheless, the Fairy-Faith as the folk-religion of the Celtic peoples is still able to count its adherents by hundreds of thousands. Even in many cases where Christian theology has been partially or wholly discarded by educated Celts, in the country or in the city, as being to them in too many details out of harmony with accepted scientific truths, the belief in fairies has been jealously retained, and will, so it would seem, be retained in the future.

We are now prepared to hear about the Daoine Maithee, the ‘Good People ‘, as the Irish call their Sidhe race; about the ‘People of Peace’, the ‘Still-Folk’ or the ‘Silent Moving Folk ‘, as the Scotch call their Sith who live in green knolls and in the mountain fastnesses of the Highlands; about various Manx fairies; about the Tylwyth Teg, the ‘Fair-Family’ or ‘Fair-Folk’, as the Welsh people call their fairies; about Cornish Pixies; and about Fees (fairies), Corrigans, and the Phantoms of the Dead in Brittany. And along with these, for they are very much akin, let us hear about ghosts - sometimes about ghosts who discover hidden treasure, as in our story of the Golden Image - about goblins, about various sorts of death-warnings generally coming from apparitions of the dead, or from banshees, about death-candles and phantom-funerals, about leprechauns, about hosts of the air, and all kinds of elementals and spirits - in short, about all the orders of beings who mingle together in that invisible realm called Fairyland.


This is taken from The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries.





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