Different kinds of faeries

Hughes' faerie ringSomeone asked me if the faeries are basically all the same.

The resounding answer is, “No.”

They are very different kinds of beings, and different kinds may have starkly different ancestry.

Here’s my email about this:

There are many words that categorize the beings who are able to readily move between the worlds: fae folk, faeries, fairies, the good folk, Daoine Sidhe (said “DEE-neh shee” or “DAY-nah shee”), and more.

(In parts of Ireland, some of those words also specifically refer to one kind of “faerie.”)

People can call them all “fae” or “faeries,” and it’s sort of like saying “humans.”

If someone takes it a step further and insists that the fae folk are interchangeable, they’re mistaken.

Leprechauns and banshees and so on, are all very distinct and different kinds of beings. They may all be members/descendants of the Tuatha de Danann, according to some legends, but they’re all very different beings.

(Personally, I’m not convinced that they’re all members of the TDD [Tuatha de Danann].)

There is one exception: Leprechauns may be the same beings as cluricauns. They’re among the “little people,” and they are the only ones known to actually look industrious.

Leprechauns make the shoes for the fae folk, and sometimes make clothing.

(The Bean Tighe, the “little woman of the hearth” or “our housekeeper” is also known to be industrious, but she’s rarely seen doing any work. The leprechaun is actually heard–and sometimes seen–tapping nails into little shoes.)

The cluricauns may be what leprechauns are called in the evening hours… and they only live where there’s a good wine cellar, or at least some good wine.

For amusement, they tend to ride small animals (including cats & dogs) around the house/apartment, as if they’re horses. Pets don’t like this much, after awhile.

In some parts of Ireland, the traditions clearly state that cluricauns and leprechauns are the same beings. And there certainly seem to be plenty of them, although disbelief and a fear of humans makes them harder to find in recent years.

Both leprechauns and cluricauns are small (aka “little people”), usually wear clothing of fine materials & tailoring (if old and shabby now), and they often have a pipe clenched in their teeth. The pipe is never lit; fae folk generally hate smoke.

Continued in Elves, gnomes and faeries

The Banshee

castle at cashel irelandWhen someone mentions a ghost, most of us think of cemeteries, haunted houses, and transparent figures draped in sheets. Likewise, the word “faerie” is linked with cute little figures with wings, and merry mischief. However, mention a Banshee, and people squirm. The Banshee, like a ghost, can represent death, but that is not her actual role in folklore, or in our lives.

She can appear transparent, and is the size of a living person. Nevertheless, like her fae counterparts, she is associated with a more magickal Otherworld.

Perhaps she is the link which shows us that the Otherworld is a vast place, inhabited by many kinds of beings, including faeries and ghosts.

The Banshee, in Irish the Bean Sidhe (pronounced “bann-SHEE”), means “spirit woman” or sometimes a spirit (perhaps a faerie) dressed in white.  She is usually described as a single being, although there are many of them.

Your Irish Family’s Banshee

According to legend, one Banshee guards each Milesian Irish family. These are the families whose names start with O’ or Mac, and sometimes Fitz, though those prefixes have been dropped, particularly by American families.

There is a Banshee for each branch of these families, and the family Banshee can follow the descendants to America, Australia, or wherever the Irish family travels or emigrates.

The Banshee protects the family as best she can, perhaps as a forerunner of the “Guardian Angel” in Christian traditions. However, we are most aware of her before a tragedy that she cannot prevent.

Traditionally, the Banshee appears shortly before a death in “her” family.

The Banshee is almost always female, and appears filmy in a white, hooded gown. (The exception is in Donegal, Ireland, where she may wear a green robe, or in County Mayo where she usually wears black.)

However, if she is washing a shroud when you see her, she may merely signal a major life-changing event in your future. The way to determine this is to go home and burn a beeswax candle after seeing her; if it burns in the shape of a shroud, her appearance foretells death.

The Banshee’s Wail

The night before the death, the Banshee will wail piteously in frustration and rage. Her family will always hear her, but many others in the area will, too. For example, Sir Walter Scott referred to “the fatal banshi’s boding scream.”

One of the largest reports of this wailing was in 1938, when the Giants’ Grave in County Limerick, Ireland, was excavated and the bones were moved to a nearby castle. Those who heard the crying throughout central Ireland, said that it sounded as if every Banshee in Ireland was keening.

That wailing of many Banshees is unusual but not unique. There have been other reports of several Banshees manifesting together. When a group of Banshees are seen, it usually forecasts the dramatic illness—and perhaps death—of a major religious or political figure.

In Irish mythological history, the Banshee tradition may link to the fierce Morrighan as the “Washer at the Ford,” a legend of Cuchulain. In this story, the Morrighan appeared as a young woman who prepared for an upcoming battle by washing the clothing—or perhaps the shrouds—of those who would fight and lose.

Does the Banshee Cause Death?

Despite her grim reputation, seeing or hearing a Banshee is not what actually causes the death. In fact, the Banshee is traditionally a very kind woman. As poet and historian W. B. Yeats commented, “You will with the banshee chat, and will find her good at heart.”

Perhaps her appearance and wailing before a death are efforts to protect her family from a death or other tragedy that she foresees.

This is where we see the clearest link to what are popularly called “ghosts.” In many stories, the spirit appears to warn the living about danger, illness, or death. Gothic novels often feature a ghost whose appearance forecasts death.

Likewise, in the Sherlock Holmes story, the Hound of the Baskervilles howled before a family death.

In real life, my maternal grandmother and her siblings were individually visited by the spectre of their mother, to warn them of her imminent death in a hospital many miles away, and to say good-bye.

This level of concern for the living is consistent with many ghosts, as well as the Banshee.

Whether the Banshee is more correctly a “ghost” or a “faerie” is an discussion that may never be resolved. However, the Banshee provides clear evidence that the line between ghosts, spirits, and faeries is vague at best.

For more information about the Banshee, one of the best studies is The Banshee: The Irish Death Messenger by Patricia Lysaght (paperback, © 1986, Roberts Rhinehart Publishers, Colorado).

Elves, gnomes and faeries

Continued from Different kinds of faeries

Toadstools - evidence of faeries?The “little people” might not be from the Tuatha de Danann, but they may be beings that were in Ireland before the TDD arrived. Some speculate that their size suggests they’re of the Fir Bolg. Some say that these are the beings who inhabited Earth, even before humans were here.

(For more info about the Tuatha de Danann and the Fir Bolg, start with my short history of Ireland.)

Elves are also “little people,” but in Ireland this word is usually used to mean any small, non-winged faerie. There is no clear word for “gnome” in Irish, so elf is used to mean them, too.

Classic elves are small, often wear a red cap, and they are rarely seen. They live under the roots of trees, and prefer tangled roots. They think the roots weave pretty designs in the soil.

Classic elves protect wild animals, and these elves are what you’ll “sense” (but you won’t see) when you’re walking in the woods. Your best chance to see them is to purposely not look straight at where you hear a rustling. You may then see them out of the corner of your eye.

(If you sense something much larger, you’re near the “Green Man,” which is a very different resident of the fae world.)

Irish elves, like most Irish faeries, are almost always kindly beings, if mischievous.

This is where the etymology gets confusing: The word, elf, seems to have a Teutonic/Scandinavian background, related to words such as aelf and ylf. In the Scandinavian tradition, elves are “dark” or “light,” referring to whether they’re kind or malicious.In Scotland, where there are gnomes as there are in Scandinavia, their faeries are usually from the Seelie or Unseelie Courts, which also denote temperament, good or bad.

However, the Irish, who use the Teutonic/Scandinavian word “elf,” don’t draw lines between good and bad faeries. In fact, the only “bad” (malicious) faeries in Ireland are usually the ones who came to Northern Ireland from Scotland, with a clear Scots-Irish history.

Banshees, aka Bean Sidhe, are definitely from the Tuatha de Danann, and they’re usually full-sized women. They are NOT always dressed in white. (That misconception started when people mistakenly translated Bean Sidhe with the word “ban” [Irish for “white”] instead of “bean,” which means woman.) They protect a particular family. There are many of them, although they’re rarely seen together; usually it’s just one at a time. (If you see a cluster of them, it usually foretells the death or serious illness of a holy man or political leader.)

But the Bean Sidhe (banshee) and other fae folk are numerous, very different from one another, and their names cannot be used interchangeably.