Introduction to The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries

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

Titania, a fairy

‘I have told what I have seen, what I have thought, and what I have learned by inquiry.’



THERE is probably no other place in Celtic lands more congenial, or more inspiring for the writing down of one’s deeper intuitions about the Fairy-Faith, than Carnac, under the shadow of the pagan tumulus and mount of the sacred fire, now dedicated by triumphant Christianity to the Archangel Michael. The very name of Carnac is significant ; and in two continents, Africa and Europe - to follow the certain evidence of archaeology alone - there seem to have been no greater centres for ancient religion than Karnak in Egypt and Carnac in Brittany. On the banks of the Nile the Children of Isis and Osiris erected temples as perfect as human art can make them; on the shores of the Morbihan the mighty men who were, as it seems, the teachers of our own Celtic forefathers, erected temples of unhewn stone. The wonderful temples in Yucatan, the temple-caves of prehistoric India, Stonehenge in England, the Parthenon, the Acropolis, St. Peter’s at Rome, Westminster Abbey, or Notre-Dame, and the Pyramids and temples of Egypt, equally with the Alignements of Carnac, each in their own way record more or less perfectly man’s attempt to express materially what be feels spiritually. Perfected art can beautify and make more attractive to the eye and mind, but it cannot enhance in any degree the innate spiritual ideals which men in all ages have held; and thus it is that we read amid the rough stone menhirs and dolmens in Brittany, as amid the polished granite monoliths and magnificent temples in Egypt, the same silent message from the past to the present, from the dead to the living. This message, we think, is fundamentally important in understanding the Celtic Fairy-Faith; for in our opinion the belief in fairies has the same origin as all religions and mythologies.

And there seems never to have been an uncivilized tribe, a race, or nation of civilized men who have not bad some form of belief in an unseen world, peopled by unseen beings. In religions, mythologies, and the Fairy-Faith, too, we behold the attempts which have been made by different peoples in different ages to explain in terms of human experience this unseen world, its inhabitants, its laws, and man’s relation to it The Ancients called its inhabitants gods, genii, daemons, and shades; Christianity knows them as angels, saints, demons, and souls of the dead; to tin-civilized tribes they are gods, demons, and spirits of ancestors; and the Celts think of them as gods, and as fairies of many kinds.



By the Celtic Fairy-Faith we mean that specialized form of belief in a spiritual realm inhabited by spiritual beings which has existed from prehistoric times until now in Ireland, Scotland, Isle of Man, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany, or other parts of the ancient empire of the Celts. In studying this belief, we are concerned directly with living Celtic folk-traditions, and with past Celtic folk-traditions as recorded in literature. And if fairies actually exist as invisible beings or intelligences, and our investigations lead us to the tentative hypothesis that they do, they are natural and not supernatural, for nothing which exists can be supernatural; and, therefore, it is our duty to examine the Celtic Fairy Races just as we examine any fact in the visible realm wherein we now live, whether it be a fact of chemistry, of physics, or of biology.

However, as we proceed to make such an examination, we shall have to remember constantly that there is a new set of ideas to work with, entirely different from what we find in natural sciences, and often no adequate vocabulary based on common human experiences. An American who has travelled in Asia and an Englishman who has travelled in Australia may meet in Paris and exchange travelling experiences with mutual understanding, because both. of them have experienced travel; and they will have an adequate vocabulary to describe each experience, because most men have also experienced travel. But a saint who has known the spiritual condition called ecstasy cannot explain ecstasy to a man who has never known it, and if he should try to do so would discover at once that no modern language is suitable for the purpose. His experience is rare and not universal, and men have developed no complete vocabulary to describe experiences not common to the majority of mankind, and this is especially true of psychical experiences.

It is the same in dealing with fairies, as these are hypothetically conceived, for only a few men and women can assert that they have seen fairies, and hence there is no adequate vocabulary to describe fairies. Among the Ancients, who dealt so largely with psychical sciences, there seems to have been a common language which could be used to explain the invisible world and its inhabitants; but we of this age have not yet developed such a language. Consequently, men who deny human immortality, as well as men with religious faith who have not through personal psychical experiences transformed that faith into a fact, nowadays when they happen to read what Plato, lamblichus, or any of the Neo-Platonists have written, or even what moderns have written in attempting to explain psychic facts, call it all mysticism. And to the great majority of Europeans and Americans, mysticism is a most convenient noun, applicable to anything which may seem reasonable yet wholly untranslatable in terms of their own individual experience; and mysticism usually means something quite the reverse of scientific simply because we have by usage unwisely limited the meaning of the word science to a knowledge of things material and visible, whereas it really means a knowing or a knowledge of everything which exists. We have tried to deal with the rare psychical experiences of Irish, Scotch, Manx, Welsh, or Breton seers, and psychics generally, in the dearest language possible; but if now and then we are charged with being mystical, this is our defence.



In this study, which is first of all a folk-lore study, we pursue principally an anthropo-psychological method of interpreting the Celtic belief in fairies, though we do not hesitate now and then to call in the aid of philology; and we make good use of the evidence offered by mythologies, religions, metaphysics, and physical sciences. Folk-lore, a century ago was considered beneath the serious consideration of scholars; but there has come about a complete reversal of scholarly opinion, for now it is seen that the beliefs of the people, their legends, and their songs are the source of nearly all literatures, and that their institutions and customs are the origin of those of modern times. And, to-day, to the new science of folk-lore ÷ which, as Mr. Andrew Lang says, must be taken to include psychical research or psychical sciences,÷archaeology, anthropology, and comparative mythology and religion are indispensable. Thus folklore offers the scientific means of studying man in the sense meant by the poet who declared that the proper study of mankind is man.



This study is divided into four sections or parts. The first one deals with the living Fairy-Faith among the Celts themselves; the second, with the recorded and ancient Fairy-Faith as we find it in Celtic literature and mythology; the third, with the Fairy-Faith in its religious aspects; and in the fourth section an attempt has been made to suggest how the theories of our newest science, psychical research; explain the belief in fairies.

I have set forth in the first section in detail and as dearly as possible the testimony communicated to me by living Celts who either believe in fairies, or else say that they have seen fairies; and throughout other sections I have preferred to draw as much as possible of the material from men and women rather than from books. Books too often are written out of other books, and too seldom from the life of man; and in a scientific study of the Fairy-Faith, such as we have undertaken, the Celt himself is by far the best, in fact the only authority. For us it is much less important to know what scholars think of fairies than to know what the Celtic people think of fairies. This is especially true in considering the Fairy-Faith as it exists now.



In June, 1908, after a year’s preparatory work in things Celtic under the direction of the Oxford Professor of Celtic, Sir John Rhys, I began to travel in Wales, Ireland, Scotland, and Brittany, and to collect material there at first hand from the people who have shaped and who still keep alive the Fairy-Faith; and during the year 1909-10 fresh folklore expeditions were made into Brittany, Ireland, and Wales, and then, finally, the study of the Fairy-Faith was made pan-Celtic by similar expeditions throughout the Isle of Man, and into Cornwall. Many of the most remote parts of these lands were visited; and often there was no other plan to adopt, or any method better, or more natural, than to walk day after day from one straw-thatched cottage to another, living on the simple wholesome food of the peasants.

Sometimes there was the picturesque mountain-road to climb, sometimes the route lay through marshy peat-lands, or across a rolling grass-covered country; and with each change of landscape came some new thought and some new impression of the Celtic life, or perhaps some new description of a fairy.

This immersion in the most striking natural and social environment of the Celtic race, gave me an insight into the mind, the religion, the mysticism, and the very heart of the Celt himself, such as no mere study in libraries ever could do. I tried to see the world as he does; I participated in his innermost thoughts about the great problem of life and death, with which he of all peoples is most deeply concerned; and thus he revealed to me the source of his highest ideals and inspirations. I daily felt the deep and innate seriousness of his ancestral nature; and, living as he lives, I tried in all ways to be like him. I was particularly qualified for such an undertaking: partly Celtic myself by blood and perhaps largely so by temperament, I found it easy to sympathize with the Celt and with his environments. Further, being by birth an American, I was in many places privileged to enter where an Englishman, or a non-Celt of Europe would not be; and my education under the free ideals of a new-world democracy always made it possible for me to view economic, political, religious, and racial questions in Celtic lands apart from the European point of view, and without the European prejudices which are so numerous and so greatly to be regretted. But without any doubt, during my sojourn, extending over three years, among the Celts, these various environments shaped my thoughts about fairies and Fairyland ÷ as they ought to have done if truth is ever to be reached by research.

These experiences of mine lead me to believe that the natural aspects of Celtic countries, much more than those of most non-Celtic countries, impress man and awaken in him some unfamiliar part of himself - call it the Subconscious Self, the Subliminal Self, the Ego, or what you will ÷ which gives him an unusual power to know and to feel invisible, or psychical, influences. What is there, for example, in London, or Paris, or Berlin, or New York to awaken the intuitive power of man, that subconsciousness deep-hidden in him, equal to the solitude of those magical environments of Nature which the Celts enjoy and love?

In my travels, when the weather was too wild to venture out by day, or when the more favourable hours of the night had arrived, with fires and candles lit, or even during a roadside chat amid the day’s journey, there was gathered together little by little, from one country and another, the mass of testimony which chapter ii contains. And with all this my opinions began to take shape; for when I set out from Oxford in June, I had no certain or clear ideas as to what fairies are, nor why there should. be belief in them. In less than a year afterwards I found myself committed to the Psychological Theory, which I am herein setting forth.


We make continual reference throughout our study to this Psychological Theory of the Nature and Origin of the Celtic Fairy-Faith, and it is one of our purposes to demonstrate that this is the root theory which includes or absorbs the four theories already advanced to account for the belief in fairies. To guide the reader in his own conclusions, we shall here briefly outline these four theories.

The first of them may be called the Naturalistic Theory, which is, that in ancient and in modern times man’s belief in gods, spirits, or fairies has been the direct result of his attempts to explain or to rationalize natural phenomena. Of this theory we accept as true that the belief in fairies often anthropomorphically reflects the natural environment as well as the social condition of the people who hold the belief. For example, amid the beautiful low-lying green hills and gentle dells of Connemara (Ireland), the ‘good people’ are just as beautiful, just as gentle, and just as happy as their environment; while amid the dark-rising mountains and in the mysterious cloud-shadowed lakes of the Scotch Highlands there are fiercer kinds of fairies and terrible water-kelpies, and in the Western Hebrides there is the much-dreaded ‘spirit-host’ moving through the air at night.

The Naturalistic Theory shows accurately enough that natural phenomena and environment have given direction to the anthropomorphosing of gods, spirits, or fairies, but after explaining this external aspect of the Fairy-Faith it cannot logically go any further. Or if illogically it. does attempt to explain the belief in gods, spirits, or fairies as due entirely to material causes, it becomes, in our opinion, like the psychology of fifty years ago, obsolete; for now the new psychology or psychical research has been forced to admit - if only as a working hypothesis-the possibility of invisible intelligences or entities able to influence man and nature. We seem even to be approaching a scientific proof of the doctrines of such ancient philosophical scientists as Pythagoras and Plato, - that all external nature, animated throughout and controlled in its phenomena by daemons acting by the will of gods, is to men nothing more than the visible effects of an unseen world of causes.

In the internal aspects of the Fairy-Faith the fundamental fact seems clearly to be that there must have been in the minds of prehistoric men, as there is now in the minds of modern men, a germ idea of a fairy for environment to act upon and shape. Without an object to act upon, environment can accomplish nothing. This is evident. The Naturalistic Theory examines only the environment and its effects, and forgets altogether the germ idea of a fairy to be acted upon; but the Psychological Theory remembers and attempts to explain the germ idea of a fairy and the effect of nature upon it.

The second theory may be called the Pygmy Theory, which Mr. David MacRitchie, who is definitely committed to it, has so dearly set forth in his well-known work, entitled The Testimony of Tradition. This theory is that the whole fairy-belief has grown up out of a folk-memory of an actual Pygmy race. This race is supposed to have been a very early, prehistoric, probably Mongolian race, which inhabited the British Islands and many parts of Continental Europe.

When the Celtic nations appeared, these pygmies were driven into mountain fastnesses and into the most inaccessible places, where a few of them may have survived until comparatively historical times.

Over against the champions of the Pygmy Theory may be set two of its opponents, Dr. Bertram C. A. Windle and Mr. Andrew Lang.  Dr. Windle, in his Introduction to Tyson’s Philological Essay concerning the Pygmies of the Ancients, makes these six most destructive criticisms or points against the theory: (1) So far as our present knowledge teaches us, there never was a really Pygmy race inhabiting the northern parts of -Scotland; (2) the mounds with which the tales of little people are associated have not, in many cases, been habitations, but were natural or sepulchral in their nature; (3) little people are not by any means associated entirely with mounds; (4) the association of giants and dwarfs in traditions confuses the theory; (5) there are fairies where no pygmies ever were, as, for example, in North America; (6) even Eskimos and Lapps have fairy beliefs, and could not have been the original fairies of more modern fairy-lore. Altogether, as we think our study will show, the evidence of the Fairy-Faith itself gives only a slender and superficial support to the Pygmy Theory. We maintain that the theory, so far as it is provable, and this is evidently not very far, is only one strand, contributed by ethnology and social psychology, in the complex fabric of the Fairy-Faith, and is, as such, woven round a psychical central pattern-the fundamental pattern of the Fairy-Faith. Therefore, from our point of view, the Pygmy Theory is altogether inadequate, because it overlooks or misinterprets the most essential and prominent elements in the belief which the Celtic peoples hold concerning fairies and Fairyland.

The Druid Theory to account for fairies is less widespread. It is that the folk-memory of the Druids and their magical practices is alone responsible for the Fairy-Faith. The first suggestion of this theory seems to have been made by the Rev. Dr. Cririe, in his ScoUish Scenery, published in 1803.  Three years later, the Rev. Dr. Graham published an identical hypothesis in his Sketches Descriptive of Picturesque Scenery on the Southern Confines of Perthshire. Mr. MacRitchie suggests, with all reason, that the two writers probably had discussed together the theory, and hence both put it forth. Alfred Maury, in Les Fees du Moyen-Age, published in 1843 at Paris, appears to have made liberal use of Patrick Graham’s suggestions in propounding his theory that the fles or fairy women of the Middle Ages are due to a folk-memory of Druidesses. Maury seems to have forgotten that throughout pagan Britain and Ireland, both much more important for the study of fairies than Celtic Europe during the Middle Ages, Druids rather than Druidesses had the chief influence on the people, and that yet, despite this fact, Irish and Welsh mythology is full of stories about fairy women coming from the Otberworld; nor is there any proof, or even good ground for argument, that the Irish fairy women are a folk-memory of Druidesses, for if there ever were Druidesses in Ireland they played a subordinate and very insignificant rOle. As in the case of the Pygmy Theory, we maintain that the Druid Theory, also, is inadequate. It discovers a real anthropomorphic influence at work on the outward aspects of the Fairy-Faith, and illogically takes that to be the origin of the Fairy-Faith.

The fourth theory, the Mythological Theory, is of very great importance. It is that fairies are the diminished figures of the old pagan divinities of the early Celts; and many modern authorities on Celtic mythology and folk-lore hold it. To us the theory is acceptable so far as it goes. But it is not adequate in itself nor is it the root theory, because a belief in gods and goddesses must in turn be explained; and in making this explanation we arrive at the Psychological Theory, which this study - perhaps the first one of its kind - attempts to set forth.


I have made a very careful personal investigation of the surviving Celtic Fairy-Faith by living for many months with and among the people who preserve it; I have compared fairy phenomena and the phenomena said to be caused by gods, genii, daemons, or spirits of different kinds and recorded in the writings of ancient, mediaeval, and modern metaphysical philosophers, Christian and pagan saints, mystics, and seers, and now more or less clearly substantiated by from thirty to forty years of experimentation in psychical sciences by eminent scientists of our own times, such as Sir William Crookes and Sir Oliver Lodge in England, and M. Camille Flammarion in France. As a result, I am convinced of the very great value of a serious study of the Fairy-Faith. The Fairy-Faith as the folk-religion of the Celts ought, like all religions, to be studied sympathetically as well as scientifically. To those who take a materialistic view of life, and consequently deny the existence of spirits or invisible intelligences such as fairies are said to be, we should say as my honoured American teacher in psychology, the late Dr. William James, of Harvard, used to say in his lectures at Stanford University, ‘Materialism considered as a system of philosophy never tries to explain the Why of things.’ But in our study of the Fairy-Faith we shall attempt to deal with this Why of things; and, then, perhaps the value of studying fairies and Fairyland will be more apparent, even to materialists.

The great majority of men in cities are apt to pride themselves on their own exemption from ‘superstition’, and to smile pityingly at the poor countrymen and countrywomen who believe in fairies. But when they do so they forget that, with all their own admirable progress in material invention, with all the far-reaching data of their acquired science, with all the vast extent of their commercial land economic conquests, they themselves have ceased to be natural. Wherever under modern conditions great multitudes of men and women are herded together there is bound to be an unhealthy psychical

atmosphere never found in the country - an atmosphere which inevitably tends to develop in the average man who is not psychically strong enough to resist it, lower at the expense of higher forces or qualities, and thus to inhibit any normal attempts of the Subliminal Self (a well-accredited psychological entity) to manifest itself in consciousness. In this connexion it is highly significant to note that, as far as can be determined, almost all professed materialists of the uncritical type, and even most of those who are thinking and philosophizing sceptics about the existence of a supersensuous realm or state of conscious being, are or have been city-dwellers-usually so by birth and breeding. And even where we find materialists of either type dwelling in the country, we generally find them so completely under the hypnotic sway of city influences and mould of thought in matters of education and culture, and in matters touching religion, that they have lost all sympathetic and responsive contact with Nature, because unconsciously they have thus permitted conventionality and unnaturalness to insulate them from it.

The Celtic peasant, who may be their tenant or neighbour, is-if still uncorrupted by them-in direct contrast unconventional and natural. He is normally always responsive to psychical influences-as much so as an Australian Arunta or an American Red Man, who also, like him, are fortunate enough to have escaped being corrupted by what we egotistically, to distinguish ourselves from them, call’ civilization’. If our Celtic peasant has psychical experiences, or if he sees an apparition which he calls one of the ‘ good people’, that is to say a fairy, it is useless to try to persuade him that he is under a delusion: unlike his materialistically-minded lord, he would not attempt nor even desire to make himself believe that what he has seen he has not seen. Not only has he the will to believe, but he has the right to believe; because his belief is not a matter of being educated and reasoning logically, nor a matter of faith and theology-it is a fact of his own individual experiences, as he will tell you. Such peasant seers have frequently argued with me to the effect that’ One does not have to be educated in order to see fairies’.

Unlike the natural mind of the uncorrupted Celt, Arunta, or American Red Man, which is ever open to unusual psychical impressions, the mind of the business man in our great cities tends to be obsessed with business affairs both during his waking and during his dream states, the politician’s with politics similarly, the society-leader’s with society; and the unwholesome excitement felt by day in the city is apt to be heightened at night through a satisfying of the feeling which it morbidly creates for relaxation and change of stimuli. In the slums, humanity is divorced from Nature under even worse conditions, and becomes wholly decadent. But in slum and in palace alike there is continually a feverish nerve-tension induced by unrest and worry; there is impure and smoke-impregnated air, a lack of sunshine, a substitution of artificial objects f or natural objects, and in place of solitude the eternal din of traffic. Instead of Nature, men in cities (and paradoxically some conventionalized men in the country) have ‘civilization ‘ - and ‘ culture’.

Are city-dwellers like these, Nature’s unnatural children, who grind out their lives in an unceasing struggle for wealth and power, social position, and even for bread, fit to judge Nature’s natural children who believe in fairies? Are they right in not believing in an invisible world which they cannot conceive, which, if it exists, they-even though they be scientists-are through environment and temperament alike incapable of knowing? Or is the country-dwelling, the sometimes ‘ unpractical’ and ‘unsuccessful’, the dreaming, and ‘uncivilized’ peasant right? These questions ought to arouse in the minds of anthropologists very serious reflection, world-wide in its scope.

At all events, and equally for the unbeliever and for the believer, the study of the Fairy-Faith is of vast importance historically, philosophically, religiously, and scientifically. In it lie the germs of much of our European religions and philosophies, customs, and institutions. And it is one of the chief keys to unlock the mysteries of Celtic mythology. We believe that a greater age is coming soon, when all the ancient mythologies will be carefully studied and interpreted, and when the mythology of the Celts will be held in very high esteem. But already an age has come when things purely Celtic have begun to be studied; and the close observer can see the awakening genius of the modern Celt manifesting itself in the realm of scholarship, of literature, and even of art-throughout Continental Europe, especially France and Germany, throughout Great Britain and Ireland, and throughout the new Celtic world of America, as far west as San Francisco on the great calm ocean of the future facing Japan and China. In truth the Celtic empire is greater than it ever was before Caesar destroyed its political unity; and its citizens have not forgotten the ancient faith of their ancestors in a world invisible.






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