When Witches Communed with Fairies
Celtic Guide, Vol.2:10 (2013)
Our modern conventions tend to view the realms of fairies and witches separately. Witches have been viewed as evil, while fairies are seen as benevolent, cute, and kind. As scholars reevaluate witch trials and the confessions of those accused, we are coming to new conclusions on accused witches. One subject that has been discussed in the academic field of folklore, but has seemingly not seeped into the popular consciousness, is the connection between fairies and witches.
Like so many of our contemporary notions, the image of the fairy is heavily influenced by Victorian representations. The conception of the fairy from previous ages was completely stripped and buried, while the image of childlike, sweet, innocent, and playful sprites was popularized. As an analogy, consider that many have observed a similar phenomenon with angels. Biblical angels are warriors. They are imposing and intimidating figures. The Victorian era stripped angels of their image of strength and imposed a soft, dainty, infantile nature to them. Similarly, fairies had a much different image prior to the Victorian age. They were often seen as dangerous and viewed with suspicion. They could be beautiful or very ugly. Sometimes fairies were construed with other creatures, such as the trows (hideous trollish creatures) of Orkney.
Just as the Victorian era influenced the perceptions of the time, the concept of the fairy was altered by trends and cultural movements of previous eras. To be sure, fairy and other lore did (and indeed still does) continue to thrive in the British Isles, but it is difficult to fully understand the pre-Christian conception of these creatures due to the islands’ very early conversion. In his heavily researched book called Elves, Wights, and Trolls, Kvedulf Gundarsson mentions that Scandinavian alfs (from whence we get the English word elf) and the Celtic sidhe were both initially related to the Neolithic practice of the worship of the dead buried in mounds. He says that at the time of the late Stone Age “the material cultures [of the Norse and Celts] were virtually identical: it is possible that the sidhe and some of the alfs may once have been related” however as time progressed and they became separate and distinct figures, they developed different connotations within each respective culture.