Irish-American Witchcraft: Fairy Queens, Folklore, and Popculture

Irish-American Witchcraft: Fairy Queens, Folklore, and Popculture September 5, 2018

I’ve had the Fairy Queens on my mind a lot recently – probably not surprising since I just finished writing a book about them. But usually I write a book and life goes on, I move on the next; this time I find my mind lingering on the Queens of the Otherworld and the way they embody the struggle between folklore and popculture, even more than the Gods perhaps.

The difference I think between the Fairy Queens and the Gods is that when the Gods are depicted in popculture people are usually not expecting accuracy and those who move on to seek them in a genuine spiritual context know, more often than not, to look to their root cultures and the older mythology. Not so for the Fairy Queens who people for whatever reason often treat as if they have no older stories than the Dresden Files novels or the last episode of The Magicians. It creates an interesting situation for pagans incorporating these Beings into their faith and practice.

From the National Library of Wales, Public Domain Image.

Fairy Queens Before and After

The Fairy Queens are a fascinating topic and a complex one: often rooted in goddesses but surviving in modern folklore as fairies, sometimes named sometimes known only by their title, they are kind and cruel in equal measure. You can find them in some corners of paganism of course, and more so now that they are seeing a revival in pop-culture, both in urban fantasy and appearing on some television shows. How they appear in paganism is something that is both frustrating and inspiring to me because so often the folklore and traditional beliefs get thrown out entirely in favor of the poplore* – and yet they still persevere in belief and that is heartening to see.

I think the world would be poorer by a great measure without the Fairy Queens in it, and yet…and yet I struggle to control my face when I hear someone talking about Mab as Queen of the Unseelie or Aine as a sort of gentle, kind fairy godmother Queen. Shakespeare’s Mab, midwife to the fairies who brings mortals dreams at night, is hard for me to take seriously as the Queen of the malicious fairy court. And Aine, Fairy Queen that she certainly is, turned her own son into a goose and bit off the ear of a king who raped her so I’d hesitate to underestimate her by pigeonholing her into the role of cuddly wish granting sprite. And it’s probably best not to even get me started on the Morrigan’s popculture Fairy Queen depictions. We definitely lose a valuable piece of who these Queens are by ignoring their history and older stories.

Solitary Leprechauns and Fairy Wings: Yesterday’s Poplore, Today’s Folklore

The problem of fiction influencing belief isn’t new of course, and even if we look back at what is now folklore we can see the clear footprint of literature on folk belief, where popular culture and fiction left their mark. For example much modern Leprechaun lore comes from the late-19th century book ‘Irish Wonders‘ by the Irish American author McNally; despite the material he describes contradicting older folklore and mythology his stories were repeated by other folklorists of his time and spread into common belief.

“Titania Welcoming Her Brethren” by Henry Meynell Rheam. From WikiMedia.

In the same way the idea of fairies having wings seems to be rooted in the theater of the 18th century and the need to make clear when an actor was playing a fairy, yet today people more commonly envision fairies with wings than without and in the recent fairy census many people said they saw winged fairies despite no such sightings of winged fairies in anecdotes prior to the modern era. What began in popular culture over time was accepted into wider belief and became folklore.

Popculture and Fairies

Whether we like it or not – and some of us like it more or less than others – the newer generation is shifting away from sources for folklore like books and storytellers and looking for accessible multimedia. Youtube is the new shenachie for some people and television and movies are the new folklore. Young adult urban fantasy novels featuring fairies are becoming a more often cited source for beliefs among some than the actual living cultures of places like Ireland or Scotland that those novels are usually pulling from. This is a double edged blade for fairylore because while the fairies of Labyrinth were fairly consistent with older lore, if slightly twee at times, the fairies of most youtubers and young adult novels are new creations entirely.

Belief is shaped not from someone else’s lived experience or generations old traditions but from imagination and plot points. For the Fairy Queens this means a radical new re-envisioning in some cases and that should at least give us pause. I mean I like the Fairy Queen in the movie Epic as much as my kids do, but she’s about as far from the folkloric Queens as you can get and anyone who decided to actually base their worship off of her character should at least keep that in mind.

Folklore, Poplore, and Personal Gnosis

This is where it may start to get sticky for pagans. In a perfect world folklore, poplore, and personal gnosis would come together in ways that inform and balance each other; in reality usually two of the three meet and one gets left out. There’s a lot of popular culture lore going around, and there’s a lot of personal gnosis, often based on that poplore, getting tossed into the mix. But the older folklore and the modern living traditions get left out and that is a problem for several reasons but most importantly because the older material can and should ground the newer material and give us a good filter to discern the new with.

Image by Araniart. CC License 3.0

On the same hand focusing only on the older material and personal experiences creates a dangerous disconnect from the wider stream of modern belief, which at the very least means a person isn’t aware of what is out there that’s new and also good quality and close to traditional beliefs. Its true that what isn’t firmly rooted has no basis to grow from but its also true that that which isn’t growing and adapting is stagnating and dying.

Moving forward

I might argue that for us to move forward successfully as a spiritual movement we must find a happy balance between the various influences that impact us and that balance must be moderated with discernment. It’s just as problematic to throw out all the folklore as it is to ignore all the poplore, but both folklore and poplore have to be considered carefully rather than just accepted whole cloth. Personal gnosis is the same way; it’s invaluable in fleshing out a spiritual practice but it has to be filtered and curated rather than taken 100% of the time as 100% valuable.

As those of us who still believe in and honor the Good People move further into forming connections between ourselves in the American pagan community its important to share our personal gnosis, when it is shareable, because it allows us to be aware of wider trends like the increased level of Otherworldly activity many of us have noticed in the last several years. But we must also be aware of the threads of source material that are being woven together to form the wider beliefs in our community. We don’t all have to believe the same things of course, nor draw from the same sources, but we should all appreciate and be cognizant of what our own sources are and how those sources impact and blend with our beliefs.

Mothman Statue by Bob Roach, via WikiMedia. CC 2.0 License

It may be inevitable that some of today’s poplore will become another generation’s folklore, although certainly not all of it. That isn’t a wholly bad thing; a lot of current American cryptid lore and urban myth might fall into popculture lore right now but if it survives a few generations deserves its place alongside the folklore of the Jersey Devil or Mothman.

There is a need for urban fairylore and for a new understanding of where fairies fit into modern paganism and the wider world that moves away from the twee but also sheds the baggage of the last century and a half of Victorian and spiritualist/theosophy/new age influence. There’s a need to seek and find the Fairy Queens beneath the layers of poplore to discover who they really are in this new century. We can’t be afraid to see these beings as current and modern and vital. But we also can’t stop appreciating where they come from and the living cultures that still see them in the traditional ways.

*poplore i.e. popular culture lore, that is new or personal beliefs and stories usually rooted directly or indirectly in modern fiction and media.

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