The Celtic Fairy-Faith as part of a World-wide Animism


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

THE modern belief in fairies, with which until now we have been specifically concerned, is Celtic only in so far as it reflects Celtic traditions and customs, Celtic myth and religion, and Celtic social and environmental conditions. Otherwise, as will be shown throughout this and succeeding chapters, it is in essence a part of a world-wide animism, which forms the background of all religions in whatever stage of culture religions exist or to which they have attained by evolution, from the barbarism of the Congo black man to the civilization of the Archbishop of Canterbury; and as far back as we can go into human origins there is some corresponding belief in a fairy or spirit realm, as there is to-day among contemporary civilized and uncivilized races of all countries. We may therefore very profitably begin our examination of the living Fairy-Faith of the Celts by comparing it with a few examples, taken almost at random, from the animistic beliefs current among non-Celtic peoples.

To the Arunta tribes of Central Australia, furthest removed in space from the Celts and hence least likely to have been influenced by them, let us go first, in order to examine their doctrine of ancestral Alcheringa beings and of the Iruntarinia, which offers an almost complete parallel to the Celtic belief in fairies. These Alcheringa beings and Iruniarinia – to ignore the secondary differences between the two – are a spirit race inhabiting an invisible or fairy world. Only certain persons, medicine-men and seers, can see them; and these describe them as thin and shadowy, and, like the Irish Sidhe, as always youthful in appearance. Precisely like their Celtic counterparts in general, these Australian spirits are believed to haunt inanimate objects such as stones and trees; or to frequent totem centres, as in Ireland demons (daemons) are believed to frequent certain places known to have been anciently dedicated to the religious rites of the pre-Christian Celts; and, quite after the manner of the Breton dead and of most fairies, they are said to control human affairs and natural phenomena. All the Arunta invariably regard themselves as incarnations or reincarnations of these ancestral spirit-beings; and, in accordance with evidence to be set forth in our seventh chapter, ancient and modern Celts have likewise regarded themselves as incarnations or reincarnations of ancestors and of fairy beings. Also the Arunta think of the Alcheringa beings exactly as Celts think of fairies: as real invisible entities who must be propitiated if men wish to secure their goodwill; and as beneficent and protecting beings when not offended, who may attach themselves to individuals as guardian spirits.

Among the Melanesian peoples there is an equally firm faith in spiritual beings, which they call Vui and Wui, and these beings have very many of the chief attributes of the Aicheringa beings.

In Africa, the Amatongo, or Abapansi of Amazulu belief, have essentially the same motives for action toward men and women, and exhibit the same powers, as the Scotch and Irish peasants assign to the ‘good people’. They take the living through death; and people so taken appear afterwards as apparitions, having become Amatongo.

In the New World, we find in the North American Red Men a race as much given as the Celts are to a belief in various spirits like fairies. They believe that there are spirits in lakes, in rivers and in waterfalls, in rocks and trees, in the earth and in the air; and that these beings produce storms, droughts, good and bad harvests, abundance and scarcity of game, disease, and the varying fortunes of men. Mr. Leland, who has carefully studied these American beliefs, says that the Un ˆ games-suk, or little spirits inhabiting rocks and streams, play a much more influential part in the social and religious life of the North American Red Men than elves or fairies ever did among the Aryans.

In Asia there is the well-known and elaborate animistic creed of the Chinese and of the Japanese, to be in part illustrated in subsequent sections. In popular Indian belief, as found in the Panjab, there is no essential difference between various orders of beings endowed with immortality, such as ghosts and spirits on the one hand, and gods, demigods, and warriors on the other; for whether in bodies in this world or out of bodies in the invisible world, they equally live and act – quite as fairies do.  Throughout the Malay Peninsula, belief in many orders of good and bad spirits, in demon-possession, in exorcism, and in the power of black magicians is very common.  But in the Phi races of Siam we discover what is probably the most important and complete parallel to the Celtic Fairy-Faith existing in Asia.

According to the Siamese folk-belief, all the stars and various planets, as well as the ethereal spaces, are the dwelling-places of the Thevadas, gods and goddesses of the old pre-Buddhist mythology, who correspond pretty closely to the Tuatha De Danann of Irish mythology; and this world itself is peopled by legions of minor deities called Phi, who include all the various orders of good and bad spirits continually influencing mankind. Some of these Phi live in forests, in trees, in open spaces; and watercourses are full of them. Others inhabit mountains and high places. A particular order who haunt the sacred trees surrounding the Buddhist temples are known as Phi nang mai; and since nang is the word for female, and mai for tree, they are comparable to tree-dwelling fairies, or Greek wood-nymphs. Still another order called Chao phum phi (gods of the earth) are like house-frequenting brownies, fairies, and pixies, or like certain orders of corrigans who haunt barns, stables, and dwellings; and in many curious details these Chao phum phi correspond to the Penates of ancient Rome. Not only is the worship of this order of Phi widespread in Siam, but to every other order of Phi altars are erected and propitiatory offerings made by all classes of the Siamese people.

Before passing westwards to Europe, in completion of our rapid folk-lore tour of the world, we may observe that the Persians, even those who are well educated, have a firm belief in jinns and afreets, different orders of good and bad spirits with all the chief characteristics of fairies.  And modern Arabs and Egyptians and Egyptian Turks hold similar animistic beliefs.

In Europe, the Greek peasant as firmly believes in nymphs or nereids as the Celtic peasant believes in fairies; and nymphs, nereids, and fairies alike are often the survivals of an ancient mythology. Mr. J. C. Lawson, who has very carefully investigated the folk-lore of modern Greece, says:

‘The nereids are conceived as women half-divine yet not immortal, always young, always beautiful, capricious at best, and at their worst cruel. Their presence is suspected everywhere. I myself had a nereid pointed out to me by my guide, and there certainly was the semblance of a female figure draped in white, and tall beyond human stature, flitting in the dusk between the gnarled and twisted boles of an old olive-yard. What the apparition was, I had no leisure to investigate; for my guide with many signs of the cross and muttered invocations of the Virgin urged my mule to perilous haste along the rough mountain path.’ Like Celtic fairies, these Greek nereids have their queens; they dance all night, disappearing at cock-crow; they can cast spells on animals or maladies on men and women; they can shift their shape; they take children in death and make changelings; and they fall in love with young men.

Among the Roumain peoples the widespread belief in the lele shows in other ways equally marked parallels with the Fairy-Faith of the Celts. These lele wait at cross-roads and near dwellings, or at village fountains or in fields and woods, where they can best cast on men and women various maladies. Sometimes they fall in love with beautiful young men and women, and have on such occasions even been controlled by their mortal lovers. They are extremely fond of music and dancing, and many a shepherd with his pipes has been favoured by them, though they have their own music and songs too. The Albanian peoples have evil fairies, no taller than children twelve years old, called in Modem Greek ‘those without,’ who correspond to the Iele. Young people who have been enticed to enter their round dance afterwards waste away and die, apparently becoming one of ‘those without’. These Albanian spirits, like the ‘good people’ and the Breton dead, have their own particular paths and retreats, and whoever violates these is struck and falls ill.’ These parallels from Roumain lands are probably due to the close Aryan relationship between the Roumains, the Greeks, and the Celts. The lele seem nothing more than the nymphs and nereids of classical antiquity transformed under Christian influence into beings who contradict their original good character, as in Celtic lands the fairy-folk have likewise come to be fallen angels and evil spirits.

There is an even closer relationship between the Italian and Celtic fairies. For example, among the EtruscanRoman people there are now flourishing animistic beliefs almost identical in all details with the Fairy-Faith of the Celts.  In a very valuable study on the Neo-Latin Fay, Mr. H. C. Coote writes :- ‘ Who were the Fays – the fate of later Italy, the fees of mediaeval France? For it is perfectly clear that the fatua, fata, and fÉe are all one and the same word.’ And he proceeds to show that the race of immortal damsels whom the old natives of Italy called Fatuae gave origin to all the family of fees as these appear in Latin countries, and that the Italians recognized in the Greek nymphs their own Fatuae.

It is quite evident that we have here discovered in Italy, as we discovered in Greece and Roumain lands, fairies very Celtic in character; and should further examination be made of modern European folk-lore yet other similar fairies would be found, such, for example, as the elves of Germany and of Scandinavia, or as the servans of the Swiss peasant. And in all cases, whether the beliefs examined be Celtic or non-Celtic, Aryan or non-Aryan, from Australia, Polynesia, Africa, America, Asia, or Europe, they are in essence animistically the same, as later sections in this chapter will make clear. But while the parallelism of these beliefs is indicated it is, of course, not meant for a moment that in all of the cases or in any one of the cases the specific differences are not considerable. The ground of comparison consists simply in those generic characteristics which these fairy-faiths, as they may be called, invariably display – characteristics which we have good precedent for summing up in the single adjective animistic.


For the term animism we have to thank Dr. E. B. Tylor, whose Primitive Culture, in which the animistic theory is developed, may almost be said to mark the beginning of scientific anthropology. In this work, however, there is a decided tendency (which indeed displays itself in most of the leading anthropological works, as, for example, in those by Dr. Frazer) to regard men, or at any rate primitive men, as having a mind absolutely homogeneous, and therefore as thinking, feeling, and acting in the same way under all conditions alike. But a decided change is beginning to manifest itself in the interpretation of the customs and beliefs of the ruder races. It is assumed as a working principle that each ethnic group has or tends to have an individuality of its own, and, moreover, that the members of such a group think, feel, and act primarily as the representatives, so to speak, of that ethnic individuality in which they live, move, and have their being. That is to say, a social as contrasted with an individual psychology must, it is held, pronounce both the first and last word regarding all matters of mythology, religion, and art in its numerous forms. The reason is that these are social products, and as such are to be understood only in the light of the laws governing the workings of the collective mind of any particular ethnic group. Such a method is, for instance, employed in Mr. William McDougall’s Social Psychology, in Mr. R. R. Marett’s Threshold of Religion, and in many anthropological articles to be found in L’Annee Sociologique.

If, therefore, we hold by this new and fruitful method of social psychology we must be prepared to treat the Fairy-Faith of the Celtic peoples also in and for itself, as expressive of an individuality more or less unique. It might, indeed, be objected that these peoples are not a single social group, but rather a number of such groups, and this is, in a way, true. Nevertheless their folk-lore displays such remarkable homogeneity, from whatever quarter of the Celtic world it be derived, that it seems the soundest method to treat them as one people for all the purposes of the student of sociology, mythology, and religion. Granting, then, such a unity in the beliefs of the pan-Celtic race, we are finally obliged to distinguish as it were two aspects thereof.

On the one hand there is shown, even in the mere handful of non-Celtic parallels, which for reasons of space we have been content to cite, as well as in their Celtic equivalents, a generic element common to all peoples living under primitive conditions of society. It is emphatically a social element, but at the same time one which any primitive society is bound to display. On the other hand, in a second aspect, the Celtic beliefs show of themselves a character which is wholly Celtic: in the Fairy-Faith, which is generically animistic, we find reflected all sorts of specific characteristics of the Celtic peoples – their patriotism, their peculiar type of imagination, their costumes, amusements, household life, and social and religious customs generally. With this fact in mind, we may proceed to examine certain of the more specialized aspects of the Fairy-Faith, as manifested both among Celts and elsewhere.