The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries

The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries December 31, 2012
sheep grazing at Avebury

The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries is a survey of encounters with faeries, banshees, corrigans and other varieties of fae in the Celtic lands of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man, Cornwall and Brittany. It was first published in 1911; most of the accounts it relates are from the 19th century. It is a book that likely could not be written today, in part because most of the believers in faeries have died off, and in part because no serious academic today (at Stanford, no less) could dare write a book so sympathetic to the supernatural without killing his or her career.

Author Walter Yeeling Evans-Wentz, best known for his work with Tibetan Buddhism, makes frequent comments that believers in faeries were becoming less and less common. Early in the book, he says

The great majority of men in cities are apt to pride themselves on their own exemption from ‘superstition’ and to smile pityingly at the poor countrymen and countrywomen who believe in fairies. But when they do so they forget that, with all their own admirable progress in material invention, with all the far-reaching data of their acquired science, with all the vast extent of their commercial and economic conquests, they themselves have ceased to be natural.

Still, Evans-Wentz expresses great confidence in science – including the conviction that some day science would prove the existence of faeries, in one form or another. He lived until 1965 – I suspect he was rather disappointed.

Though by instinct they willingly personify Nature they do not know the secret of why they do so: for them the outer is reality, the inner non-existent.

This isn’t just a collection of fairy stories. Evans-Wentz explains why these stories are different from the tales of the gods and heroes. He brings in similar accounts from around the world, showing that belief in such spiritual beings is near universal. He explains why the theories that faeries are the remnants of a “pygmy race” of pre-Celtic humans or the memories of the magical workings of ancient Druids are unlikely.

Perhaps my favorite story in the book is this:

An elder in my church knew a woman who was accustomed, in milking her cows, to offer libations to the fairies. The woman was later converted to Christ and gave up the practice, and as a result one of her cows was taken by the fairies. Then she revived the practice.

This story is like most the book relates – it is easily believable, even by 21st century skeptics. The question comes with the interpretation. Was the woman’s cow taken by faeries, was it stolen by humans or did it just wander off?

Here is where I stop being a reader and a book reviewer and start being an active participant. During the time I was reading The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, I had three (not one or two or five, but three) incidents of things being taken. Thankfully all were eventually returned.

The first was a simple case of misplacing my reading glasses. I set them down on my desk, took a step forward to set my Kindle on the back table, turned around and my glasses were gone. I assumed I knocked them in the floor, but they were nowhere to be found. Sophie, our cat, walked in sniffing around in a way she rarely does. I asked her where my glasses were – she looked right at them, lying under a chair in a place I still can’t figure out how they ended up. They were so far under the chair I see no way they could have gotten there unassisted. The floor is carpeted and the glasses are light-weight – sliding is virtually impossible. But there they were.

The second incident was the most serious – I lost my phone on the way to Between the Worlds. I used it to check my gate before I left the house and when I got through airport security it was gone. It disappeared somewhere in between. It eventually turned up at Lost & Found at the DFW Airport (and getting it out of there was a miracle in its own right). Now, it seems likely I dropped it while undressing for security, but why didn’t I hear it when it hit the floor? I’ve been traveling with a cell phone for 15 years – I’ve never even come close to losing it before. Why would I lose it at that particular time?

The third took place at our Winter Solstice Circle. Someone gave me a gift. I was quite busy at the time, so I thanked them and then put it in one of the canvas grocery bags we used to carry all the ritual supplies. When I got home it was nowhere to be found. But it turned up at the church the following day.

I’m an engineer and I’m very good at rationalization – I can come up with “logical” explanations for all of these events. But this stuff almost never happens to me – I’m careful to the point of obsession (a little OCD can be a good thing). To have it happen three times, in close succession, all while I’m reading a book on faeries???

It could be a run of extreme random chance not in my favor. It could be the book planting unhelpful cues in my subconscious.

Or the good people could have taken notice of my reading and said “You want faeries? We’ll show you faeries…”

Let’s just say I now have a more than academic understanding of late 19th / early 20th century Celtic beliefs…

If you have an interest in what ordinary Celts believed about faeries at the beginning of the modern era, I highly recommend The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries. It’s in the public domain and is available on You can get it as a regular book, and while it’s listed as a 99 cent download for Kindle, when I “bought” it last month it was free.

Just be sure to put some milk or whiskey out for the faeries.

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