Fairy Witches: A History on the Connection Between the Fae and Witchcraft
Fairies and Witches Together
Today fairies are not just for little girls' imagination, they are also for those who believe they are witches or magical practitioners. There is a huge trend towards learning and working with the unseen world, namely the wee folk or what are more commonly called fairies or the fae. Is this just because those who "practice magic" are simply obsessed with all things supernatural? Do they just enjoy playing pretend and indulging in a fun fairy tale from time to time? Or is there more to this connection...more to this interest in the wee folk?
If we look back into the pages of history, particularly in Europe, we can see so many connections between the belief in fairies and the belief in witches and cunningfolk. In this article, we will learn about this connection, as well as where and how the first witch made friends with the fairies.
Morgan Le Fay: The First Fairy Witch
Have you ever read the story or perhaps watched a movie about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table? We can find the first stories of a Fairy Witch within these beloved English legends. Let us take a look at the supposed sister of King Arthur known as Morgan Le Fay. The last two words of her name are Le Fay which literally means the fairy. Because Morgan Le Fay was said to reside on the Isle of Avalon and was magical in nature, she was said to be one of the "fairy people" and was also said to be a "witch".
In some versions of the Arthurian legend, Morgan Le Fay was an evil magician while in others she was the savior of King Arthur after he was felled by Mordred's sword at the Battle of Camlann. Many folkloric sources say his sister Morgan Le Fay took him by boat to the magical Isle of Avalon, to be his last resting place...or perhaps to find his immortality there. The Isle of Avalon or Isle of Apples was said to be a magical place beyond the veil, or beyond the mists, separate from the mundane world and inhabited by the good folk (or fairies). In some cases, the Isle of Avalon was said to be the Otherworld, or the place where fairies lived and where we go after we die. It was the place where nine magical sisters lived, one of those sisters being Morgan Le Fay.
Was Morgan Le Fay the first fairy witch? She is the first documented account I can find of a magical practitioner who was also related closely to the fairies, dating back to the Arthurian legends circa the late fifth century A.D.
The Fairy Witch Trials
We have all heard of the unspeakable horrors that took place with the Witch Trials in Europe during the Dark Ages. We know that thousands upon thousands of people were humiliated, tortured, and executed all in the name of superstition and ignorance. Perhaps you have even heard mention of the Werewolf Witch Trials, in which people were accused of not only being witches but also being werewolves. But have you heard of the Fairy Witch trials?
These Fairy Witch Trials occurred during the same time as the Inquisition, but the difference was that the women accused of witchcraft were mainly accused of witchcraft because of their involvement with the fairies. Sounds innocent enough, right? Well, the Church claimed that fairies, elves, wee folk, etc. were not harmless creatures of nature but actually "devils" in Satan's service. They were on this earth to tempt good people to the dark side. And if you were thought to be fraternizing with fairies, you were accused of being a witch and a devil-worshiper.
Most of the Fairy Witch Trials actually took place in Italy. Out of the known sixty-five cases, the most well-known of these trials was that of an accused woman known as the Fisherwife of Palermo in Sicily. This woman claimed that she would leave her body behind and join the elves for parties and revelry. She explained to the local priest that the King and Queen of Elves promised her riches and other pleasures if she would denounce all other gods and worship them as god and goddess. She signed a contract and did as they said and was taken by spirit on many occasions to join them in feasting. Because this happened during the 1500s, belief in fairies was still so strong that most of the townspeople believed her to be associating with fairies and not necessarily the Devil himself so she was let go and held as innocent. Her accusers agreed that she was merely "having dreams" and not actually physically copulating with any such "devils".
In other such cases in other parts of Europe, people claimed to be spirited away by the fairies and join them in the Wild Hunt or other such revelries. Circle of mushrooms were said to be fairy rings, but were also said to be where witches gathered and danced under the Full Moon with the wee folk themselves.
In one witch's confession in Scotland, the woman claimed that she met with the Queen of Fairies (called the Queen of Elfame) under the hills in a magical home. The accused witch named Isobel Gowdie also said that the fairies taught her and her coven how to fly on beanstalks and other plant stalks in order to meet up with each other for meetings. This woman's confession has been the most detailed account of a witch's confession from this time period and can be researched in its entirety online and through academic books (if you are interested the writer and academic Emma Wilby wrote an entire book on Isobel's confessions).
Fairies were such an integral part of folklore in almost every part of Europe, that most people didn't find the belief in them to be an "evil" thing per se. So often as in the case with the Fisherwife of Palermo, the Church in Italy would allow the accused to go free. The Church often said that these confessions of parties with the fairies were a result of crazy dreams or actual psychosis of some kind. However, if fairies were mentioned in alignment with the Devil or familiars of any kind, the accused was then indefinitely considered a witch and tortured and/or killed because of it.
In Ireland, it's said if you were an older woman you had to be wary of keeping your house too clean. Others might get suspicious that you have a bean-tighe in your home. A bean-tighe (pronounced ban-tee) was a female fairy being similar to the Scottish brownie who would tend to your house and watch over the children. Old women who were associated with the fairies were often accused of being witches.
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Cunningfolk and the Fairy Friends
In opposition to "witches" who were said to practice black magic, there were those in various places in Europe who were known to practice "white" magic...magic that helped heal others by means of herbs and simple incantations. These people were called something different depending upon the region but in England, Wales, and Ireland were known as Cunningfolk or healers. Many of these cunningfolk were said to have gotten their cures and knowledge from the fae themselves.
One such cunningfolk was an Irish woman by the name of Biddy Early. Biddy lived in the late 1700s through the 1800s and was called upon to not only heal people's ailments but also to help in finding lost items, to help in curing sick animals, and to aid in increasing prosperity with farm production. Biddy was well known not only for her herbal knowledge but also for her clairvoyance. Some said that Biddy was given these powers by the fairy people, and that she carried a "fairy bottle" that told her how to solve the townsfolk's problems.
The Church did not approve of Biddy Early's methods of aiding the townspeople, but the townspeople supported Biddy's involvement in their lives and did not believe any ill of her. This was a case similar to that of Moll Anthony in England, who was also a cunningwoman said to be friends with the local fairies.
So the question is, were cunningfolk given their abilities or taught their abilities by the local fairies and good folk? Or was this knowledge acquired through family ties or simply self-taught in a day and age when natural remedies were of the utmost importance?
Modern Day "Fairy Witches"
The cunningfolk and witches of the past are dead and gone now; however, there is a new wave of people that claim to be witches and magical practitioners that are "bringing back" the old ways. Some of these people claim they practice fairy witchcraft in that they base their magic and beliefs solely around the legends and lore of the fairies. There are certain writers and occultists who have made up their own system of fairy witchcraft as a form of religion, while others simply go off of their research into past folkloric accounts.
We can see some of these practices in very innocent forms with those who set up elaborate fairy gardens and leave offerings to the fay on Midsummer and other natural holidays.
One such tradition is called the Feri Tradition and was created by Victor Anderson. This form of witchcraft is based on sensuality and can be very intense in nature. From my research it is not very focused on the actual belief or workings with fairies but more on an ecstatic experience within oneself. There is also various fairy wiccan traditions that try to tie Celtic belief of the wee folk into ritual and practice.
Are these people actually making contact with fairies? Or perhaps it is during astral travel and dreamtime that they are actually communicating with these other realms. Perhaps this is what our ancestors experienced when they doled out their strong beliefs in the wee folk and fairies. Are fairy witches legitimate? I will let you decide for yourself...
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© 2015 Nicole Canfield