Last year Scarlet Magdalene wrote a great piece titled ‘The Gods Are Not Personal Vending Machines, Doing the Work is Crucial‘ the crux of which, I think, is that relationships with the Gods are reciprocal and that if we ask for something we need to put in effort as well. Re-reading it recently I was reminded not of the way that people treat the Gods like vending machines, which they do, but the way this same thought applies to the fairies. I’ve lost count of the number of articles and websites I’ve seen that suggest treating fairies like some sort of magical instant gratification: put in a request get out a response.
This attitude is a problem for several reasons and these reasons illustrate wider issues with the ways that some people today approach the entire idea of fairies. Below I’d like to address several of these issues individually to take on this idea of fairies as beings who exist to serve humans or who desire to. Hopefully discussing the problems that come with this concept will help people reassess how they are engaging with these beings and potentially find new and more conducive approaches.
Not Our Servants
The first and most glaring thing that jumps out with this is the idea that the Good Folk are our servants and exist to fulfill our whims. Many of the things I see floating around have this concept embedded in them, from those who say all we have to do is go out on a certain night and make a wish which a fairy will then make happen to the ones encouraging people to call on fairies in spells to give them things. All of this is predicated on the Othercrowd being responsive to human whims and being willing to act to give us things we want, often without any offered payment.
I suspect this idea is rooted in several confusions between fairies with egregores and elementals. As opposed to seeing them as beings with their own agency and free will they are treated as mindless or simple beings which can be called up and directed. There may also be some confusion going on here with fairies as they were treated and invoked in ceremonial magic with the new age view of fairies as more benign creatures.
It is true that there are spells which explicitly invoked fairies to do a human magician’s bidding but these are not the type of spells we find in mainstream American witchcraft today, which treat beings that are invoked as allies of the witch by default; rather, the ceremonial spells assume the fairy must be called and bound to the magician in some way to be dealt with safely. This is usually done by invoking holy names against the fairy, by trapping them until they agree to the magician’s terms, or by making a deal with them*.
Nothing Is Free
The second issue that comes in with this idea which I touched on in point one is the concept that the Good People will do as humans ask them to for nothing or basically nothing. There seems to be a pervasive idea underlying a lot of this that fairies are simply hanging around waiting for some human to ask them to do something fairly tedious and mundane. I’ve seen spells asking the fairies to protect people’s pets, help plants grow, even bring joy into people’s lives. And I’m not saying they won’t or can’t do those things but I am asking why they should for nothing; just because a person really likes fairies and has a lot of windchimes isn’t the same as actual payment.
The idea of asking the Good Neighbours to do something for a person is, at best, frowned on in folklore and living cultural belief. It’s considered dangerous to invite them into your life and to ask them to do a thing for you because it’s understood they will expect to be paid; if you don’t clearly lay down the term of repayment, they will. In other words if you ask without offering in return you are giving them a blank check to fill out as they see fit.
People often don’t like it when I say that because it’s much nicer to believe that there are friendly little beings out there just waiting to do whatever we ask for nothing in return, but I encourage people to give this some serious thought. While it’s possible that you can run across a random act of Otherworldly kindness, of course, one should never assume on that kindness or take it for granted. Just like with our fellow humans or the plants and animals around us, we should strive to live in balance and that means giving as well as taking.
When all you do is take you are bound to cause yourself problems.
There’s also the issue of trust here, or perhaps I should say too much trust. Even a cursory study of folklore and living cultural beliefs will show that there are a wide range of beings falling under the general term ‘fairy’ and that these beings can be helpful or harmful. While the mainstream commercialized view has tried to narrow fairies down to just small winged sprites – or perhaps I should more accurately say has created them – these beings are still ambivalent in many stories. Let’s not forget that Barrie’s Tinkerbell tried to have Wendy killed after all. It’s only in the narrative of some specific approaches, particularly the more new age ones where fairies have been melded to a degree with modern views of angels, and pop culture stories of the last few decades that fairies have shifted into fully benevolent beings.
A lot of this can be boiled down to a sense of entitlement. People like the idea of being able to simply wish for a thing and have it handed to them, without any thought to how that works on the other end of the equation. We can parse this out however we like but ultimately it is entitlement to think that beings of another World would exist to do our bidding, would do so for nothing, and would do so out of pure helpful goodness. It’s a view that is extremely human-centric and predicated on the human in the equation for inexplicable reasons deserving the attention and favours they are asking for just because they are asking.
If I may be allowed a very pointed pop culture analogy, it’s like the wizards and house elves in Harry Potter, where the house elves’ lives revolve around serving the needs of the wizards who rarely even think of how their convenience is accomplished. I don’t happen to feel that the beings of Fairy are our servants, as I’ve already discussed, but even if they were this attitude of treating them like wish-vending machines would be concerning.
Folkloric Fairy Servants
So at this point those of you familiar with folklore might be saying ‘but what about brownies and other fairies known to work around human homes?‘. While it’s true that there are entire categories of folkloric fairies connected to humans in ways that can be interpreted as servants or the like, there are some key differences between these beings and the modern trope of the wish-granting fairy.
While in modern terms these beings are often seen as simply existing to make humans happy – and with no real consequences if you offend them – in folklore fairies like the Brownie have a very specific reciprocal relationship with a household. They clean and care for a place but they also expect a certain treatment and payment in response and if they are angered will wreak great havoc on the same people they previously helped. And they have a vested interest in either the place or the family. That is what ties them to their duty; there is a sense of ownership those fairies have towards the humans or place which often can’t be broken even when it sours.
I suppose for due diligence I should also mention that in many folkloric tales of fairies and humans it is the humans who play the role of the servant to the fairies, not the other way around. Although people may like to joke about wishing they had a Brownie of their own, and so that kind of household fairy is popularized, there are plenty of stories of a human taken into fairy to act as a servant or otherwise bound to play that role.
For example, in the story of The Fairy Dwelling on Selena Moor the human Grace is taken by the Cornish fairies and we see her playing music and serving food and drink to them. In another example given by Katherine Briggs we find a story of a girl who is engaged by a mysterious employer to care for his son; part of this job requires her to put an ointment on the child’s eyes every day. Naturally one day she touches her own eye with this ointment only to find that her employer and the child she is caring for are actually members of the Gentry and knowing their secret she is cast out – basically fired – and despite searching is never able to find them again.
Right Relationship Dealing With Fairies
What this all boils down to is that at a minimum we should treat the Good Folk the same way we should treat the Gods – emphasizing reciprocity and relationship. The Fair Folk are complex beings, an entire category of beings, and they should be understood broadly not homogenized into an almost meaningless mashup of modern stereotypes. In order to get out of this entitled, presumptive mindset simply approach dealing with the fairies the way you would a strange human – unless you want to go the ceremonial magic route and use ritual to force them to comply. Outside that however if you keep in mind that you can ask (but it’s not owed to you), you can offer a fair exchange for what you are asking for (nothing is free so pay for what you want one way or another), and you should be cautious in who and what you trust (because not everything means you well) then you’re going in the right direction.
Of course, not engaging at all is also always an option.
*see The Book of Oberon for examples or Harms article ‘Hell and Fairy: The Differentiation of Fairies and Demons Within British Ritual Magic of the Early Modern Period’ 2018 in the book ‘Knowing Demons, Knowing Spirits in the Early Modern Period’