Fairies, Magic, and Witchcraft


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

The evidence from each Celtic country shows very clearly that magic and witchcraft are inseparably blended in the Fairy-Faith, and that human beings, i.e.’ charmers,’ dynion hysbys, and other magicians, and sorceresses, are often enabled through the aid of fairies to perform the same magical acts as fairies; or, again, like Christian priests who use exorcisms, they are able, acting independently, to counteract fairy power, thereby preventing changelings or curing them, saving churnings, healing man or beast of ‘fairy-strokes’, and, in short, nullifying all undesirable influences emanating from the fairy world. A correct interpretation of these magical elements so prominent in the Fairy-Faith is of fundamental importance, because if made it will set us on one of the main psychical highways which traverse the vast territory of our anthropological inquiry. Let us, then, undertake such an interpretation, first setting up, as we must, some sort of working hypothesis as to what magic is, witchcraft being assumed to be a part of magic.

Theories of Modern Anthropologists

We may define magic, as understood by ancients and moderns, civilized or non-civilized, apart from conjuring, which is mere jugglery and deception of the senses, as the art of controlling for particular ends various kinds of invisible forces, often, and, as we hold, generally thought of as intelligent spirits. This is somewhat opposed to Mr. Marett’s point of view, which emphasizes ‘pre-animistic influences’, i.e. ‘powers to which the animistic form is very vaguely attributed if at all.’ And, in dealing with the anthropological aspects of spell-casting in magical operations, Mr. Marett conceives such a magical act to be in relation to the magician ‘generically, a projection of imperative will, and specifically one that moves on a supernormal plane’, and the victim’s position towards this invisible projected force to be’ a position compatible with rapport ‘.  He also thinks it probable that the essence of the magician’s supernormal power lies in what Melanesians call mana.’ In our opinion mana may be equated with what William James, writing of his attitude toward psychical phenomena, called a universally diffused ‘soul-stuff ‘ leaking through, so to speak, and expressing itself in the human individual.  On this view, Mr. Marett’s theory would amount to saying that magicians are able to produce magical effects because they are able to control this ‘soul-stuff’; and our evidence would regard all spirits and fairies as portions of such universally diffused mana, ‘soul-stuff’, or, as Fechner might call it, the ‘Soul of the World’. Moreover, in essence, such an idea of magic coincides, when carefully examined, with what ancient thinkers like Plato, lamblichus, the Neo-Platonists generally, and mediaeval magicians like Paracelsus and Eliphas Levi, called magic; and agrees with ancient Celtic magic – judging from what Roman historians have recorded concerning it, and from Celtic manuscripts themselves.

Other modern anthropologists have set up far less satisfactory definitions of magic. According to Dr. Frazer, for example, magic assumes, as natural science does, that ‘one event follows another necessarily and invariably without the intervention of any spiritual or personal agency ‘.  Such a theory is not supported by the facts of anthropology; and does not even apply to those specialized and often superficial kinds of magic classed under it by Dr. Frazer as ‘sympathetic and imitative magic’, i.e. that through which like produces like, or part produces whole. To our mind, sympathetic and imitative magic (to leave out of account many fallacious and irrational ritualistic practices, which Dr. Frazer includes under these loose terms), when genuine, in their varied aspects are directly dependent upon hypnotic states, upon telepathy, mind-reading, mental suggestion, association of ideas, and similar processes; in short, are due to the operation of mind on mind and will on will, and, moreover, are recognized by primitive races to have this fundamental character. Or, according to the Fairy-Faith, they are caused by a fairy or disembodied spirit acting upon an embodied one, a man or woman; and not, as Dr. Frazer holds, through ‘mistaken applications of one or other of two great fundamental laws of thought, namely, the association of ideas by similarity and the association of ideas by contiguity in space or time ‘.

The mechanical causation theory of magic, as thus set forth in The Golden Bough, does not imply mana or willpower, as Mr. Marett’s more adequate theory does in part: Dr. Fraser wishes us to regard animistic religious practices as distinct from magic.  Nevertheless, in direct opposition to Dr. Frazer’s view, the weight of the evidence from the past and from the present, which we are about to offer, is decidedly favourable to our regarding magic and religion as complementary to one another and, for all ordinary purposes of the anthropologist, as in principle the same. The testimony touching magicians in all ages, Celtic magic and witchcraft as well, besides that resulting from modern psychical research, tends to establish an almost exclusively animistic hypothesis to account for fairy magical phenomena and like phenomena among human beings; and with these phenomena we are solely concerned.

Among the Ancients

Among the more cultured Greeks and Romans – and the same can be said of most great nations of antiquity – it was an unquestioned belief that innumerable gods, placed in hierarchies, form part of an unbroken spiritual chain at the lowest end of which stands man, and at the highest the incomprehensible Supreme Deity. These gods, having their abodes throughout the Universe, act as the agents of the Unknown God, directing the operation of His cosmic laws and animating every star and planet. Inferior to these gods, and to man also, the ancients believed there to be innumerable hosts of invisible beings, called by them daemons, who, acting as the servants of the gods, control, and thus in a secondary sense create, all the minor phenomena of inanimate and animate nature, such as tempests, atmospheric disturbances generally, the failure of crops or their abundance, maladies and their cure, good and evil passions in men, wars and peace, and all the blessings and curses which affect the purely human life.

Man, being of the god-race and thus superior to these lower, servile entities, could, like the gods, control them if adept in the magical sciences; for ancient Magic, about which so much has been written and about which so little has been understood by most people in ancient, mediaeval, and modern times, is according to the wisest ancients nothing more than the controlling of daemons, shades, and all sorts of secondary spirits or elementals by men specially trained for that purpose. Sufficient records are extant to make it evident that the fundamental training of Egyptian, Indian, Assyrian, Greek, Roman, and Druid priests was in the magical or occult sciences. Pliny, in his Natural History, says :- ‘And to-day Britain practises the art [of magic] with religious awe and with so many ceremonies that it might seem to have made the art known to the Persians.’  Herein, then, is direct evidence that the Celtic Fairy-Faith, considered in its true psychic nature, has been immediately shaped by the ancient Celtic religion; and, as our witness from the Isle of Skye so clearly set forth, that it originated among a cultured class of the Celts more than among the peasants. And, in accordance with this evidence, Professor Georges Dottin, who has made a special study of the historical records concerning Druidism, writes :- ‘The Druids of Ireland appear to us above all as magicians and prophets. They foretell the future, they interpret the secret will of the fees (fairies), they cast lots.’ ‘ Thus, in spite of the popular and Christian reshaping which the belief in fairies has had to endure, its origin is easily enough discerned even in its modern form, covered over though this is with accretions foreign to its primal character.

Magic was the supreme science because it raised its adepts out of the ordinary levels of humanity to a close relationship with the gods and creative powers. Nor was it a science to be had for the asking, ‘for many were the wand-bearers and few the chosen.’ Roman writers tell us that neophytes for the druidic priesthood often spent twenty years in severe study and training before being deemed fit to be called Druids. We need not, however, in this study enter into an exposition of the ordeals and trials of candidates seeking magical training, or else initiation into the Mysteries. There were always two schools to which they could apply, directly opposed in their government and policy-the school of white magic and the school of black magic; the former being a school in which magical powers were used in religious rites and always for good ends, the latter a school in which all magical powers were used for wholly selfish and evil ends. In both schools the preliminary training was the same; that is to say, the first thing taught to the neophyte was selfcontrol. When he proved himself absolutely his own master, when his teachers were certain that he could not be dominated by another will or by any outside or psychic influence, then for the first time he was permitted to exercise his own iron will in controlling daemons, ghosts, and all the elemental hosts of the air-either as a white magician or as a black magician.

If white magic be correlated with religion as religion is popularly conceived, namely the cult of supernatural powers friendly to man, and black magic be correlated with magic as magic tends to be popularly conceived, namely witchcraft and devil-worship, we have a satisfactory historical and logical basis for making a distinction between religion and magic; religion (including white magic) is a social good, magic (black magic) is a social evil. Such a distinction as Dr. Frazer makes is untenable within the field of true magic.

The magical sciences taught (an idea which still holds its ground, as one can discover in modern India) that by formulas of invocation, by chants, by magic sounds, by music, these invisible beings can be made to obey the will of the magician even as they obey the will of the gods. The calling up of the dead and talking with them is called necromancy; the foretelling through spiritual agency and otherwise of coming events or things hidden, like the outcome of a battle, is called divination; the employment of charms against children so as to prevent their growing is known as fascination; to cause any ill fortune or death to fall upon another person by magic is sorcery; to excite the sexual passions of man or woman, magical mixtures called philtres are used. Almost all these definitions apply to the practices of black magic. But the great schools known as the Mysteries were of white magic, in so far as they practised the art; and such men as Pythagoras, Plato, and Aeschylus, who are supposed to have been initiated into them, always held them in the highest reverence, though prohibited from directly communicating anything of their esoteric teachings concerning the origin and destiny of man, the nature of the gods, and the constitution of the universe and its laws.

In Plato’s Banquet the power or function of the daemonic element in nature is explained. Socrates asks of the prophetess Diotima what is the power of the daemonic element (personified as Love for the purposes of the argument), and she replies :- ‘ He interprets between gods and men, conveying and taking across to the gods the prayers and sacrifices of men, and to men the commands and replies of the gods; he is the mediator who spans the chasm which divides them, and therefore in him all is bound together, and through him the arts of the prophets and priests, their sacrifices and mysteries and charms, and all prophecy and incantation find their way. For God mingles not with man; but through the daemonic element (or Love) all the intercourse and converse of God with man, whether awake or asleep, is carried on. The wisdom which understands this is spiritual.’

Among the Ancient Celts

If we turn now directly to Celtic magic in ancient times, we discover that the testimony of Pliny is curiously confirmed by Celtic manuscripts, chiefly Irish ones, and that then, as now, witchcraft and fairy powers over men and women are indistinguishable in their general character. Thus, in the Echtra Condla, ‘the Adventures of Connla,’ the fairy woman says of Druidism and magic :- ‘ Druidism is not loved, little has it progressed to honour on the Great Strand. When his law shall come it will scatter the charms of Druids from journeying on the lips of black, lying demons ‘ – so characterized by the Christian transcribers.  In How Fionn Found his Missing Men, an ancient tale preserved by oral tradition until recorded by Campbell, it is said that’ Fionn then went out with Bran (his fairy dog). There were millions of people (apparitions) out before him, called up by some sleight of hand ‘. In the Leabhar na h-Uidre, or ‘Book of the Dun Cow’ (p. 43 a), compiled from older manuscripts about A. D. 1100, there is a clear example of Irish fetishism based on belief in the power of demons :- ‘ . . . for their swords used to turn against them (the Ulstermen) when they made a false trophy. Reasonable [was] this; for demons used to speak to them from their arms, so that hence their arms were safeguards.’

Shape-shifting quite after the fairy fashion is very frequently met with in old Celtic literature. Thus, in the Rennes Dinnshenchas there is this passage showing that spirits or fairies were regarded as necessary for the employment of magic :- ‘ Folks were envious of them (Faifne the poet and his sister Aige): so they loosed elves at them who transformed Aige into a fawn’ (the form assumed by the fairy mother of Oisin, see p. 299 n.),’ and sent her on a circuit all round Ireland, and the fians of Meilge son of Cobthach, king of Ireland, killed her.’  A fact which ought to be noted in this connexion is that kings or great heroes, rather than ordinary men and women, are very commonly described as being able to shift their own shape, or that of other people; e. g. ‘ Mongan took on himself the shape of Tibraide, and gave Mac an Daimh the shape of the cleric, with a large tonsure on his head.’  And when this fact is coupled with another, namely the ancient belief that such kings and great heroes were incarnations and reincarnations of the Tuatha De Danann, who form the supreme fairy hierarchy, we realize that, having such an origin, they were simply exercising in human bodies powers which their divine race exercise over men from the fairy world.

In Brythonic literature and mythology, magic and witchcraft with the same animistic character play as great or even a greater role than in Gaelic literature and mythology. This is especially true with respect to the Arthurian Legend, and to the Mabinogion, some of which tales are regarded by scholars as versions of Irish ones. Sir John Rhys and Professor J. Loth, who have been the chief translators of the Mabinogion, consider their chief literary machinery to be magic.

So far it ought to be clear that Celtic magic contains much animism in its composition, and that these few illustrations of it, selected from numerous illustrations in the ancient Fairy-Faith, confirm Pliny’s independent testimony that in his age the Britons seemed capable of instructing even the Persians themselves in the magical arts.

European and American Witchcraft

In a general way, the history of witchcraft in Europe and in the American colonies is supplementary to what has already been said, seeing that it is an offshoot of mediaeval magic, which in turn is an offshoot of ancient magic. Witchcraft in the West, in probably a majority of cases, is a mere fabric of absurd superstitions and practices – as it is shown to be by the evidence brought out in so many of the horrible legal and ecclesiastical processes conducted against helpless and eccentric old people, and other men and women, including the young, often for the sake of private revenge, and generally on no better foundation than hearsay and false accusations, In the remaining instances it undoubtedly arose, as ancient witchcraft (black magic) seems to have arisen, through the infiltration of occult knowledge into uneducated and often criminally inclined minds, so that what had formerly been secretly guarded among the learned, and generally used for legitimate ends, degenerated in the hands of the unfit into black magic. In our own age, a parallel development, which adequately illustrates our subject of inquiry, has taken place in the United States: fragments of magical lore bequeathed by Mesmer and his immediate predecessors, the alchemists, were practically and honestly applied to the practice of magnetic healing and healing through mental suggestion by a small group of practitioners in Massachusetts, and then with much ingenuity and real genius were applied by Mary Baker Eddy to the interpretation of miraculous healing by Jesus Christ. Hence arose a new religion called Christian Science. But this religious movement did not stop at mental healing: according to published reports, during the years 1908 – 9 the leader of the New York First Church of Christ, Scientist, was deposed, and, with certain of her close associates, was charged with having projected daily against the late Mrs. Eddy’s adjutant a current of ‘malicious animal magnetism’ from New York to Boston, in order to bring about his death. The process is said to have been for the deposed leader and her friends to sit together in a darkened room with their eyes closed. ‘Then one of them would say:

“You all know Mr. -. You all know that his place is in the darkness whence he came. If his place is six feet under ground, that is where he should be.” Then all present would concentrate their minds on the one thought – Mr. – and six feet under ground.’ And this practice is supposed to have been kept up for days. Mrs. -, who gives this testimony, is a friend of the victim, and she asserts that these evil thought-waves slowly but surely began his effacement, and that had the black magicians down in New York not been discovered in time, Mr. – could not have withstood the forces.’ Perhaps so enlightened a country as the United States may in time see history repeat itself, and add a new chapter to witchcraft; for the true witches were not the kind who are popularly supposed to ride on broomsticks and to keep a house full of black cats, and the sooner this is recognized the better.

According to this aspect of Christian Science, ‘malicious animal magnetism’ (or black magic), an embodied spirit, i. e. a man or woman, possesses and can employ the same magical powers as a disembodied spirit – or, as the Celts would say, the same magical powers as a fairy – casting spells, and producing disease and death in the victim. And this view coincides with ordinary witchcraft theories; for witches have been variously defined as embodied spirits who have ability to act in conjunction with disembodied spirits through the employment of various occult forces, e.g. forces comparable to Mesmer’s odic forces, to the Melanesian mana, or to the ‘soul-stuff’ postulated by William James, or, as Celts think, to forces focused in fairies themselves. So, also, according to Mr. Marett’s view, there is a state of rapport between the victim and the magician or witch; and where such a state of rapport exists there is some mana like force passing between the two poles of the magical circuit, whether it be only unconscious mental or electrical force emanating from the operator, or an extraneous force brought under control and concentrated in some such conscious unit as we designate by the term ‘spirit’, ‘devil’, or ‘ fairy’.

In conformity with this psychical or animistic view of witchcraft, in the Capital Code of Connecticut (A. D. 1642) a witch is defined as one who ‘hath or consorteth with a familiar spirit ‘  European codes, as illustrated by the sixth chapter of Lord Coke’s Third Institute, have parallels to this definition :- ‘ A witch is a person which hath conference with the devil; to consult with him to do some act.” And upon these theories, not upon the broomstick and black-cat conception, were based the trials for witchcraft during the seventeenth century.

The Bible, then so frequently the last court of appeal in such matters, was found to sustain such theories about witches in the classical example of the Witch of Endor and Saul; and the idea of witchcraft in Europe and America came to be based – as it probably always had been in pagan times – on the theory that living persons could control or be controlled by disembodied spirits for evil ends. Hence all black magicians, and what are now known as ‘spirit mediums’, were made liable by law to the death penalty.

In mediaeval Europe the great difficulty always was, as is shown in the trials of Jeanne d’Arc, to decide whether the invisible agent in magical processes, such as was imputed to the accused, was an angel or a demon. If an angel, then the accused was a saint, and might become a candidate for canonization; but if a demon, the accused was a witch, and liable to a death-sentence. The wisest old doctors of the University of Paris, who sat in judgement (or were consulted) in one of Jeanne’s trials, could not fully decide this knotty problem, nor, apparently, the learned churchmen who also tried her; but evidently they all agreed that it was better to waive the question. And, finally, an innocent peasant girl who had heard Divine Voices, and who had thereby miraculously saved her king and her country, was burned at the stake, under the joint direction of English civil and ecclesiastical authorities, and, if not technically, at least practically, with the full approval of the corresponding French authorities, at Rouen, France, May 30, A. D. 1431.  In April, A. D. 1909, almost five centuries afterwards, it has been decided with tardy justice that Jeanne’s Voices were those of angels and not of demons, and she has been made a saint.

How the case of Jeanne d’Arc bears directly upon the Fairy-Faith is self-evident : One of the first questions asked by Jeanne’s inquisitors was ‘if she had any knowledge of those who went to the Sabbath with the fairies? or if she had not assisted at the assemblies held at the fountain of the fairies, near Domremy, around which dance malignant spirits? ‘ And another question exactly as recorded was this :-‘ InlerroguÉe s’elle croiet point au devant de aujourduy, que les fees feussent maulvais esperis : respond qu’elle n’en sèavoit rien.’


Finally, we may say that what medicine-men are to American Indians, to Polynesians, Australians, Africans, Eskimos, and many other contemporary races, or what the mightier magicians of modern India are to their people, the ‘ fairy-doctors’ and ‘ charmers’ of Ireland, Scotland, and Man are to the Gaels, and the ‘Dynion Hysbys’ or ‘Wise Men’ of Wales, the witches of Cornwall, and the seers, sorceresses, and exorcists of Brittany are to the Brythons. These Gaelic and Brythonic magicians and witches, and ‘fairy mediums’, almost invariably claim to derive their power from their ability to see and to communicate with fairies, spirits, and the dead; and they generally say that they are enabled through such spiritual agencies to reveal the past, to foretell the future, to locate lost property, to cast spells upon human beings and upon animals, to remove such spells, to cure fairy strokes and changelings, to perform exorcisms, and to bring people back from Fairyland.

We arrive at the following conclusion :- If, as eminent psychical researchers now postulate (and as many of them believe), there are active and intelligent disembodied beings able to act psychically upon embodied men in much the same way that embodied men are known ordinarily to act psychically upon one another, then there is every logical and common-sense reason for extending this psychical hypothesis so as to include the ancient, mediaeval, and modern theory of magic and witchcraft, namely, that what embodied men and women can do in magical ways, as for example in hypnotism, disembodied men and women can do. Further, if fairies, in accord with reliable testimony from educated and critical percipients, hypothetically exist (whatever their nature may be), they may be possessed of magical powers of the same sort, and so can cast spells upon or possess living human beings as Celts believe and assert. And this hypothesis coincides in most essentials with the one we used as a basis for this discussion, that, in accordance with the Melanesian doctrine of control of ghosts and spirits with their inherent mana, magical acts are possible. (1) This in turn applied to the Celts amounts to a hypothetical confirmation of the ancient druidical doctrine that through control of fairies or demons (daemons) Druids or magicians could control the weather and natural phenomena connected with vegetable and animal processes, could cast spells, could divine the future, could execute all magical acts.