Fairies were dangerous. Not to believe in them was dangerous. Not to respect them or take them seriously was dangerous — hence all the carefully euphemistic or indirect names one used in speaking of them, from “the Gentry” to “the Good People,” “Themselves,” “the fair folk” and “the people of peace” through to the charming Welsh phrase bendith û mamme, or “such as have deserved their mother’s blessing.” Fairies stole your children. They made you or your animals sick, sometimes unto death. They could draw the life, or essence, out of anything, from milk or butter through to people. Their powers, as we have seen, were almost limitless, not only demonic but even godlike in scale and scope.
While ordinary people still believed this less than a century ago, the educated had also believed it in the era of the witch persecutions. Witches did these kinds of thing, and fairies or fairyland were quite often referenced in their trials. Although Joan of Arc was tried as a heretic, rather than a witch, the latter association naturally clung to such an unusual woman, and it is notable that in 1431 her interrogators took an interest in the “fairy tree” around which Joan had played in her childhood in Domrémy. In the Protestant camp, Calvin later emphasized how “the Devil works strange illusions by fairies and satyrs.” In early modern Sicily one distinct type of witch was the female “fairy doctor,” the phrase donna di fuori (“woman from outside”) meaning either “fairy” or “fairy doctor.” Here Inquisitors encouraged people, including suspected witches, to equate fairy and witch beliefs. In 1587 they were especially interested in one Laura di Pavia, a poor fisherman’s wife who claimed to have flown to fairyland in Benevento, Kingdom of Naples.
In many cases, educated witch-believers saw fairies and fairyland as sources of dark power for witches. Lizanne Henderson lists 38 Scottish witch trials (1572—1716) featuring references to fairy beliefs, including that of Isobel Strathaquin (Aberdeen, 1597), accused of using skills which she “learnt . . . of an elf-man who lay with her.” At the 1616 trial of Katherine Caray the accused spoke of meeting not only “a great number of fairy men” on the Caithness hills at sunset, but “a master man” — a figure which in this context could have been seen as “the King of the Fairies” or “the Prince of Darkness.” After a Scottish girl, Christian Shaw, suffered hysterical fits in 1696, the ensuing trial featured a veritable cauldron of lurid evidence, from a mysterious black man with cold hands through to the eating of “a piece of unchristened child’s liver,” and a charm of blood and stones used by one Margaret Fulton, a reputed witch whose “husband had brought her back from the fairies.”
Like witches, fairies were powerful, uncanny and unpredictable. And like witches, or vampires, or any of the world’s numerous magical figures, fairies were scapegoats. They could be blamed for almost anything.
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In August 1909 an old woman of Donegal, Annie McIntire, applied for a pension. She told the Pension Committee that although “she did not know the number of her years,” she “remembered being stolen by the ‘wee people’ (fairies) on Halloween Night, 1839.” Was she certain of this?
“Yes, by good luck my brother happened to be coming home from Carndonagh that night, and heard the fairies singing and saw them dancing round me in the wood at Carrowkeel. He had a book with him, and he threw it in among them. They then ran away.” The applicant added that the people celebrated the event by great feasting and drinking. The committee decided to grant her a pension.
Whatever actually happened that Halloween night, McIntire clearly believed her version until the end of her days. So, too, would many of those around her, young or old. For everyone knew that fairies stole children.
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In 1952 the Australian-born classical scholar Gilbert Murray (1866—1957) recalled how,
in Ireland, in my own lifetime, a child, who was for some reason reputed to be a changeling, was beaten and burned with irons, the mother being locked out of the room while the invading fairy was exorcised, though unfortunately the child died in the process.
This killing does not seem to have been prosecuted, and many of those which escaped public or legal notice must now have been lost to us.