The word “fairy” can refer to many different types of mythical beings. Both the teeny winged fairies still popularly pictured and the wilder human-sized fae of YA and adult fantasy novels often reflect a patchwork of source material. Since it would take many posts to adequately cover all those sources, I’m going to focus on the aos sí of Ireland today. A fair amount of modern fairy lore hearkens back to these Good Neighbors, who, like most neighbors, were never really good or bad. They were simply their own people, with their own motivations and standards.
Thank you to Lotus Laura for suggesting today’s topic! Laura expressed interest in “something along the lines of mermaids or fairies.” I’m planning to cover both of these, though I’ll hold off on mermaids for now since they aren’t quite in line with the “little people” theme of Quarterly Bestiary this year. That said, Laura has a new novel out that features some fascinating mermaids! If that sounds like the perfect summer treat, please check it out!
Artwork by Bridget Sarsen.
Sí Who Must Not Be Named
The aos sí are a folk with many names. They are often referred to as “sídhe,” one of several variations on the modern Irish “sí” along with “sídh,” and “síth” (Scottish),1 all pronounced “shee.” Though treated as meaning “fairy,” a “sídhe” is actually a burial “mound” or hill.2 The names “daoine sí,” “síogaí,” and “aos sí” reference their tendency to live in these hills.3 A long taboo against saying “sí” and even “fairy” has led to a variety of euphemisms, such as “Fair Folk,” “Good Neighbors,” “Gentry,” “Little People,” and “Wee Folk.” The last two attempt to diminish them, while calling them “good” aims to encourage benevolence to humans.4 The name taboo may reflect a belief in true names giving power over the named or summoning them, though I haven’t confirmed this was a traditional part of Irish fairy lore.
Just like “fairy,” “sí” could refer to a range of supernatural beings and phenomena. A “bean-sídh” or banshee (“bean” meaning “woman”) could mean a female spirit whose wailing lament foretold death or a “sorceress.”5 Likewise, a “fear-sí” could indicate a male member of the aos sí or a druid.6 The “Leannán Sidhe” or “Fairy Lover” seduced and inspired artists in order to feed off their energy.7 There were “Cat Sìth” and “Cu Sìth,” cats and dogs of sí nature, and the sí gaoithe or “fairy wind” might carry aos sí warriors or simply bad luck and illness.8 Céol-Sidhe or “fairy music” could imbue mortals with musical talent,9 but it also entranced and its tones might haunt people “to their death.”10 Similarly, those who consumed sí food or drink would wither away longing for another world if they returned home.11 Beware messing with any path or potential dwelling of the aos sí, such as “raths (ancient forts), lisses (abandoned homesteads),”12 and single trees, especially their favored hawthorn.13 Really, anything produced or claimed by the aos sí might hold a hint of their power.
Sí’s Got the Look (and the Power)
Despite their power, aos sí often go unnoticed. That’s not surprising, since they are frequently “invisible to mortal eyes” and skilled shapeshifters besides.14 Both abilities may owe more to “glamour,” illusions that trick human senses, than to literal transformation. Only people with “the second sight” are likely to recognize the aos sí unless they reveal themselves. When they do, they often appear as tall, richly-dressed people in gray or green clothing. Often they have otherworldly beauty and are pale with either brown or gold hair. However, the changelings they swap with human babies are generally described as “wizened,” hairy, and “hideous.”15 Those seeking to “spy” on mortals may “appear like old men and women,”16 and I’ve seen mention of “fairies of the earth [who] are small and beautiful.”17 Traditional aos sí do not, however, have wings.
Though the mounds might be where they appeared to live, the aos sí technically dwell in an entirely different world. Their “homes” on this plane are merely portals to this Otherworld, whose names include Mag Mell (Plain of Delight), Tír na mBan (Land of Women), and Tír na nóg (Land of Youth).18 With a few exceptions, both the aos sí and their world are without aging and death. All are beautiful paradises, with Tír na nóg automatically manifesting the desires of inhabitants.19 Since the aos sí have a right to all lost treasure, their palaces shine with gold and diamonds.20 White quartz or “Clocha Geala” was especially associated with them, considered a “fairy stone” found only in their hills and something that should never be used in the construction of human houses.21 Once, angry evicted families might wish unending bad luck on whoever took their home by placing quartz stones in a fire to summon the aos sí brimming with “righteous malevolence.” Today, the more healing properties of the stone are better remembered.
White quartz or Clocha Geala was originally considered a fairy stone. Photo by Peter Du00f6pper on Pexels.com
A host of misfortunes were blamed on the aos sí. If angered, they might strike with fairy shot, causing “paralysis, madness, blindness or permanent lameness.”22 Alternately, they might pinch and poke through the night or bring bad luck and illness on people. Such attacks usually resulted from slights or disrespect, such as building over a “fairy path” and not making sure the front and back doors aligned to keep the path accessible. Speaking ill of them, especially on Friday when they were most present and powerful,23 was another good way to earn their wrath. They sometimes interfered in hurling and wrestling because they disliked the “violent” nature of such games,24 despite their own willingness to be violent in punishment.
Perhaps the most feared sí danger was abduction. Beautiful babies and young adults might be swapped with a changeling or simply taken, sometimes to supplement a chronic “low birth rate.”25 Stolen mortal girls might be sacrificed to “the Evil One,” supposedly necessary every seven years.26 Theft was often not connected to offense, so aggressive methods were used to thwart it. Primroses and salt created protective wards,27 and wearing red or carrying iron also protected against sí powers.28 Tossing urine at them would send the “fastidious” aos sí flying.29 Fire was the strongest weapon. Changelings were often tested with fire, as even those pretending death would leap away from flames. 30 Another test was leaving them overnight in an “open grave.”31 Parents might trick or bargain to undo the trade. In one case the sí mother helps because she never agreed to the exchange and wants her child back.32 And sometimes, the human parents might actually raise the changeling.
Bonfires during Beltane and Samhain protected against sí mischief. Photo by Adonyi Gu00e1bor on Pexels.com
There were many ways to protect against aos sí anger, but the best was proper respect. Since they had “a right to whatever is spilt or falls on the ground,”33 it was courteous to leave them some grain or milk where it fell. Nightly offerings of food, milk, and wine were also expected plus some water to bathe in and warm coals left in the fireplace. When pleased, they paid by “blessing” and even occasionally in pots of gold. Sometimes even their abductees returned with compensation. Human doctors and midwives taken to tend aos sí could return with knowledge or gold if they kept their heads. The “fairy doctors” who treated sí-related problems among humans were typically women who had been stolen away to the Otherworld, where they lived for seven years or until “they grew old and ugly.”34 Their special skills and knowledge was the trade for their lost time.
Just as they might hurt without cause, the aos sí could show spontaneous kindness too. Mortals taken to the sí realm often receive warnings and aid from one of the aos sí despite others trying to tempt them. A figure known as the “Red-haired Man,” who may or may not be of the sí himself, is a frequent rescuer.35 He also appears in a tale where the aos sí use their tricks to scare a domestic abuser into gentler ways.36 Sometimes sí beings “helped the poor” by sharing riches and advice with them,37 particularly Leprechauns. Given the enchanting abilities of aos sí, it’s hard to say how much consent was involved in relationships that produced “children of the Sidhe and a mortal mother,” who were said to grow “clever and beautiful” but with volatile emotions.38 There were cases of aos sí/human friendship, however, so it’s possible there were genuine romances as well.
So what are the aos sí, exactly? Since they live in burial mounds and often rub elbows with spirits of the “newly dead,”39 some have suggested they are themselves ghosts or perhaps ancestral spirits. Others categorize them as “nature spirits” since they favor wild woodlands and water.40 A Christianized explanation claims they are former “angels” whose pride led to banishment on Earth.41 This origin divides them into three types: sea fairies (possibly including mermaids!), earth fairies, and demonic fairies who train evil witches. Their antagonism towards humans is said to be because the aos sí have deathless life as long as the world lasts but, lacking souls, will simply disappear when the end times come.
One commonly discussed origin for the aos sí is as descendants or remnants of the Tuatha Dé Danaan. As I mentioned in my post on Tolkien’s Elves, the Tuatha also had an unclear status. Many—Dagda, Brigid, Morrigan, Lugh, Danu—are treated as deities today. Yet ambiguous textual references have created disagreement over whether they were deities or heroes, and Danu’s very existence is questioned.42 Some sources call them “gods-but-not-gods.”43 Whatever their identity, the Tuatha are said to have crossed the sea to take Ireland from the Fomorians and sometimes the Fir Bolg, reigning supreme until the Milesians or Sons of Mil (humans) arrived and drove them into the sídhe to become the aos sí. Or possibly to join the aos sí who already lived there.
The Tuatha and the aos sí are similar but not necessarily the same. Both are tall, have ageless beauty and strong horse-riding skills. The claim that aos sí can’t or won’t lie may come from the Tuatha, who suffer if they break a promise since “their word is their bond.”44 Yet the Tuatha carried “weapons and tools of iron,”45 likely crafted by their smith Goibniu or even Brigid. Iron is often depicted as harmful to aos sí and other fairies, though that may have been a later addition based on Roman encounters with bronze-wielding Briton warriors.46 Some have argued that the aos sí are the “unskilled” commoners of the “People of Skill.”47 Their leaders and royalty do usually have different names. However, there is a “Lugh” in both ranks. Whether this indicates two Lughs, a “Danann High King” and the father of the half-sí warrior Cú Chulain,48 or one individual who was somehow both is unclear.
Warriors of the Tuatha Dé Danaan or a host of aos sí enjoying a ride? John Duncan’s “Riders of the Sidhe” (1911), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Paths of Fairy
Fairies as we think of them today are woven from several different mythological threads. The word traces back to the French “Faeries” whose aliases “Fées” and “Fêtes” point to a connection with the Latin “fata” or “fate.”49 These Brittany faeries were pictured as wearing white and being extremely beautiful despite the mussels and algae growing on their backs. Abductions and changelings appear in several cultures, including Norwegian trolls, while the Seelie and Unseelie Courts frequently seen in YA fantasy hail from Scottish lore. The aos sí likely contributed glamour (literally) and maybe also the warning against eating in fairyland. Several fairy kings and queens have Irish roots. Usually King Finvarra and Queen Oona are less well known than Queen Mab, depicted as historical and human in the Táin Bó Cúailnge as Queen Medb, or Titania and Oberon from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare was also one of the first to describe fairies as minuscule,50 which led to the tiny flowery fairies of Victorian England.
“Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.”51
~ “The Stolen Child,” W. B. Yeats – 1865-1939
The aos sí took on the name “fairies” and some of the popular fairy characteristics as time went on. Poets like W.B. Yeats used them during the late 19th century as symbols bolstering Irish nationalist pride, claiming that Irish “fairies were more genuine” than English fairies.52 The quote above is the call of a sí-like fairy tempting away a human child. It’s possibly the most frequently quoted of Yeats’ fairy lines. I’ve seen it again and again, though the version that haunts me comes from the Torchwood episode “Small Worlds.” The team faces off against mostly invisible, not-so-beautiful fairies seeking to claim young Jasmine as their latest “Chosen One.”53 Unlike traditional changeling/abduction tales, Jasmine genuinely desires to go with the fairies, and in the end Jack respects her choice.
Aos Sí/ Fairy Tales
Aos sí remain so tightly woven together with “fairies” that it’s often difficult to separate them in media. The “Fair Folk” in Zen Cho’s delightful “Monkey King, Faerie Queen” (thank you to Amanda @ Bookish Brews for introducing me to this short story!) seem mostly based on the aos sí. The court may include an English Barghest, but they live underground and are referenced as “the Good Neighbors.”54 The BBC show Merlin includes beings identified as “Sídhe” who nonetheless look more like popular fairies. The main one shown is a tiny, winged man with blue skin. In other cases, beings labeled only as “fairies” might show aos sí characteristics.
One of my favorites of the latter is Michelle Harrison’s 13 Treasures series. The complex fairy ecosystem Harrison creates is primarily British, but elements from Scottish, Irish, and French lore appear. Terms like “glamour” and “second sight” will ring familiar to sí scholars, as will the use of salt, iron, and red clothing as fairy protection. The character of “Red,” a second-sighted girl working against the changeling trade to recover her stolen brother, especially resonates with sí themes. Tanya is trapped in an underground passage with one entrance “through a grave” when she first meets Red.55 A bit like the Red-haired Man, Red teaches Tanya more about protecting herself from fairies and also shows up to save her from an attempt to send her to the other world.
Sometimes the aos sí appear with their original name and mythology mostly intact. The Sidhe series by Cindy Cipriano presents a mostly positive view. The Hobayeth clan of Sidhe are treated as evil, but half-Sidhe protagonist Calum and his Aessea clan mother are more than willing to get along with humans. The Goodreads reviews hint at the presence of sí gaoithe whirlwinds alongside such updates as Pluto being the Sidhe world. On the opposite end of the spectrum stands Peadar O’Guilin’s The Call, which imagines the Aes Sídhe as “Tuatha Dé Danann” banished to hellish Grey Land by the ancestors of the Irish.56 Kept alive mainly through Dagda’s Cauldron, which here resurrects and heals rather than supplying endless food,57 the Sídhe steal, mutate, and kill Irish teens in vengeance. Though not entirely flat monsters, these Sídhe are truly terrifying with the sadistic glee and their ability to re-form human flesh with a touch.
Efnisien sacrifices himself to destroy the cauldron of rebirth. 1906. Though said to be an Irish treasure, the Pair Dadeni or Cauldron of Rebirth was actually from a Welsh tale. Similar cauldrons appear in 13 Treasures and The Call. T. Prytherch, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface of the wealth of information out there on the aos sí. And they’re just one type of “fairy!” Sometime I’d also like to look into the faeries of Brittany, but that will take more digging. As for the aos sí, what do you think of what I’ve shared here? Were you familiar with the term aos sí or sídhe before or is this your first time seeing it? I’d love to hear your thoughts! Also, if you’ve read or watched other media featuring sí beings, please share!
- Mac Ritchie, David, “Notes on the Word ‘Sidh,’” The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 3, no. 4 (Dec., 1893): 367-379. JSTOR (25508068). 367.
- “The Sidhe, the Tuatha de Danaan, and the Fairies in Yeats’s Early Works,” California State University Northridge, Sep. 25, 1998, accessed Mar. 4, 2020, http://www.csun.edu/~hceng029/yeats/funaro.html.
- Daimler, Morgan, “The Good Neighbors: Fairies in an Irish and Scottish Cultural Context,” Air n-Aithesc, Imbolc/Bealtaine 2015, accessed July 14, 2021, https://www.academia.edu/12251990/The_Good_Neighbors_Fairies_in_an_Irish_and_Scottish_Cultural_Context.
- Bismarck, Julie, “The Sidhe (or Aos Si) – the Kings and Queens of the Fairies,” Celtic Lady, posted Mar. 8, 2010, accessed July 15, 2021, http://celticanamcara.blogspot.com/2010/03/aos-si-kings-and-queens-of-fairies.html.
- Mac Ritchie, 373.
- Mac Ritchie, 377.
- Lady Wilde, Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland (Boston: Ticknor and Company, 1888), 30. Accessed through HathiTrust, July 20, 2021, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.hn1sfz&view=1up&seq=1.
- Lady Wilde, 133.
- Lady Wilde, 74.
- “The Sidhe.”
- Lady Wilde, 90.
- Lady Wilde, 263.
- Lady Wilde, 38.
- Broderick, Shane, “The Evolution of the Irish Otherworld,” Ireland’s Folklore and Traditions, posted July 26, 2019, accessed Mar. 4, 2020, https://irishfolklore.wordpress.com/2019/07/26/the-evolution-of-the-irish-otherworld/.
- zteve t evans, “Exploring the Otherworld of the Celts,” #FolkloreThursday, posted Mar. 18, 2021, accessed July 14, 2021, https://folklorethursday.com/legends/exploring-the-otherworld-of-the-celts/.
- Lady Wilde, 257.
- Thompson, Tok, “Clocha Geala/Clocha Uaisle: White Quartz in Irish Tradition,” Béaloideas Iml. 73 (2005): 111-133. JSTOR (20520880). 115.
- “When Fairies Attack,” Emerald Isle, accessed July 21, 2021, https://emeraldisle.ie/index.php?p=when-fairies-attack.
- Lady Wilde, 210.
- Lady Wilde, 259.
- Lady Wilde, 7.
- Lady Wilde, 74.
- Lady Wilde, 104.
- “The Sidhe.”
- Lady Wilde, 40.
- Lady Wilde, 39.
- Lady Wilde, 230.
- Lady Wilde, 50.
- Lady Wilde, 114.
- Lady Wilde, 32.
- Lady Wilde, 33.
- “The Sidhe.”
- Lady Wilde, 91.
- Lady Wilde, 37-38.
- McGrath, Sheena, “The Ambiguous Status of the Tuatha De Danann,” We Are Star Stuff, posted May 30, 2020, accessed Feb. 3, 2021, https://earthandstarryheaven.com/2020/05/30/tuatha-de-danann/.
- Kinniburgh, Annie, “The Noldor and the Tuatha Dé Danaan: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Irish Influences,” Mythlore 28, no. 1/2 (107/108) (Fall/Winter 2009): 27-44. JSTOR (26815461). 35.
- Isaac, Ali, “The Blacksmith in Irish Mythology,” Irish Mythology, posted May 10, 2020, accessed July 28, 2021, https://www.aliisaacstoryteller.com/post/the-blacksmith-in-irish-mythology.
- Dean, Remy, “Ferrous Friend or Foe? How Iron Became the Enemy of Fairy Folk,” #FolkloreThursday, posted June 22, 2017, accessed July 14, 2021, https://folklorethursday.com/folklore-of-archaeology/ferrous-friend-foe-iron-became-enemy-fairy-folk/.
- Isaac, Ali, “The Fairy Folk of Ireland,” Irish Mythology, posted May 12, 2020, accessed July 15, 2021, https://www.aliisaacstoryteller.com/post/the-fairy-folk-of-ireland.
- Christensen, L. A., trans, “Faeries in Upper Brittany, France,” Dragons, Faeries, Space & Stars, posted Dec. 11, 2019, accessed July 14, 2021, https://lachristensen.wordpress.com/2019/12/11/faeries-in-upper-brittany-france/.
- Daimler, Morgan, “Why Do We Envision Fairies As Tiny?,” Living Liminally, posted June 22, 2021, accessed July 15, 2021, https://lairbhan.blogspot.com/2021/06/why-do-we-envision-fairies-as-tiny.html.
- Yeats, W.B., “The Stolen Child,” Poets.org, Academy of American Poets, accessed July 28, 2021, https://poets.org/poem/stolen-child.
- Fimi, Dimitra, “‘Mad’ Elves and ‘Elusive Beauty’: Some Celtic Strands of Tolkien’s Mythology,” Folklore 117, no. 2 (Aug., 2006): 156-170. JSTOR (30035484), 161.
- Torchwood, “Small Worlds,” episode 5, series 1, directed by Alice Troughton, written by Peter J. Hammond, BBC, Nov. 12, 2006.
- Cho, Zen, “Monkey King, Faerie Queen,” Kaleidotrope, Spring 2015, https://kaleidotrope.net/archives/spring-2015/monkey-king-faerie-queen-by-zen-cho/.
- Harrison, Michelle, 13 Treasures (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009), 176.
- O’Guilin, Peadar, The Call (New York: Scholastic Inc., 2016), 80.
- zteve t evans, “Ancient Celtic Cauldrons: The Magical, the Mythical, the Real,” #FolkloreThursday, posted Feb. 11, 2021, accessed May 12, 2021, https://folklorethursday.com/legends/ancient-celtic-cauldrons-the-magical-the-mythical-the-real/.