For centuries there have been legends and lore about mysterious spiritual entities commonly referred to as Fairies. Also known as Faeries, the Fae, and numerous other names, they permeate countless stories and legends since time unremembered, with appearances and origins as varied as the different cultures and people who believe in them. Most commonly depicted in popular culture as shimmering little flying forest spirit nymphs with wings, they are also mostly seen by the mainstream as benevolent and playful creatures. Yet, looking into the lore of fairies they are not always so, and stories abound of the darker side of these creatures, including mischief, murder, and kidnappings. One frequent theme in fairy lore is that they have a well-known reputation for abducting human beings, and far from mere legend and lore, this has reportedly happened for real many times over the centuries.
In some traditions of fairy abductions, the little folk were said to leave behind an entity called a "changeling," which was a fairy imposter who merely looked like the person who was abducted to act like a placeholder and take the abductee's place. In one such case from March of 1895, a young woman by the name of Bridget Cleary disappeared in Ireland, and after an extensive search for the woman her body was finally found not far from her home. Police would finger husband Michael Cleary, her father Patrick Boland, her aunt Mary Kennedy, her cousins Patrick, William, James and Michael Kennedy, and John Dunne as the killers, but under questioning they would weave a very strange tale indeed. According to them, the real Bridgette had in fact been abducted by fairies, who had then left behind a changeling in her place, a fact they uncovered when the creature became very ill for no reason. They then tied up the changeling and tortured it in order to find out where the real Bridgette had been taken to, but it died from its injuries. According to them, the police had found the changeling’s body and not that of the real Bridgette. It was a colorful story, but the police weren’t buying it and they were charged with murder.
In most cases the person is just sort of whisked away, and this often happens to the very young. Another case concerns a young woman by the name of Annie McIntire, also from Ireland. According to an account in a 1909 edition of the Preston Herald:
Annie McIntire, a venerable county Derry woman, has a sublime faith in the fairies. When being examined at a meeting of the Limavady Pension Committee as to her age, she fixed the time of her birth as Hallowe’en in 1839 giving for her recollection of the fact the startling reason that she had been ‘stolen by the fairies’. In reply to the chairman the woman said she was as certain of her abduction by the fairies as the she was alive. After carrying off the infant, she continued, the ‘wee people’ indulged in revels and dancing, in the wood at Carrowkeel, which were fortunately overheard by her brother when returning from Carndomagh. The brother had a book [a Bible? difficult to see the fairies being frightened off by a penny dreadful], which he threw into the wood, and scattered the fairies when he lifted his baby sister in his arms and carried her back in triumph. Further questioned the witness said her mother relatives were overjoyed at her safe return and gave themselves up to feasting and merriment. This was the only incident by which witness was able to determine her age, of which no record appeared in the census of 1841 or that of 1851.
Indeed babies are traditionally prime targets for fairies, and in order to protect their infants people would often sprinkle them with holy water or hang bars or rods of iron over their cribs, as iron was said to ward fairies off, with even adults often carrying around iron when venturing into a fairy’s territory. This was among many precautions mothers would take to protect both themselves and their babies from fairies. 20th century fairy researcher W.Y. Evans-Wentz said of this:
The fairies were wont to take away infants and their mothers, and many precautions were taken to safeguard them till purification and baptism took place, when the fairy power became ineffective. Placing iron about the bed, burning leather in the room, giving mother and child the milk of a cow which had eaten of the mothan, pearl-wort (Pinguicula vulgaris), a plant of virtue, and similar means were taken to ensure their safety. If the watching-women neglected these precautions, the mother or child or both were spirited away to the fairy bower.
This does not seem to always work, though, and in another account we have a case from the site Irish Central from a witness called “Grace.” She writes:
Don’t believe in Fairy abductions? My Granny would have a sit down with you and soon set you straight. From the very day of her birth, Granny’s parents carefully lay their iron fire-poker across the basket she slept in. They were believer’s you see, in the Good People. Well, wasn’t everyone back then? But times have changed and now there are fewer who believe. Who knows, maybe the Good People like it that way. My Granny thinks so and she says she should know.
"I’ve lived one foot in our world and the other foot in theirs” so she says. You see, when Granny was but a few months old, the Good People tried to steal her away. Without a drop of whiskey on her breath, she’ll tell you that she was asleep in her wee basket when there was a commotion out back of her parent’s cottage. They lived in County Limerick at that time, it was a farm, with mainly sheep she says, and anyway, all hell had broken loose tween sheep and dogs and Granny’s Mam and Pop upped and ran outside to see the damage. As it happened, there was nothing to see, nothing at all. It had been nothing but bluster, for the sheep and dogs were only calm and dozey. Which was strange in itself.
Granny’s Mam was pretty canny, and she hightailed it back to the cottage to find Granny, still wrapped tight in her blanket, laying at the threshold at the front door. Fast asleep. Across the room from her basket. When she was older, Granny was told by her parents that the Good People had distracted them so they could steal her away for she was ‘touched’, having one blue eye and one green you see. Only they couldn’t get her out from the cottage on account she’d been baptized. Granny will tell you the iron bar did nothing to keep the Good People from reaching in her basket and what's more, it wasn’t true, her being baptized. It’s what her parents told anyone who asked, but in truth, she was yet to be baptized and only a day or two after the ‘visit’ as Granny calls it, her parents took her on the quiet to the Priest for to get the job done.
So we can only guess that the Good People dropped Granny to the ground when they heard her Mam approaching. I think Granny enjoys telling the story and wears it as a kind of badge actually. It is remarked by many who have known Granny that she has lived a charmed life on account of her touch by the Good People. There could be something to that, she is nearing 100 years old after all and as bright and feisty as ever before.
Not all such abductions are of babies, but the victims are typically young, and some of the strangest reports of fairy abductions come from who have managed to come back to tell the tale. A very weird earlier report also has to do with what is called a “Fairy Circle,” a sort of portal between the land of the Fae and our reality, which in this account supposedly existed near the farm of Llwyn y Ffynon, near the Vale of Neath in South Wales. In 1755, two servants on the farm, a Rhys ap Morgan, and Llewellyn Walter, were walking towards the farm one evening when Rhys stopped and told his companion he could hear music playing, although Llewellyn could hear nothing. Rhys told the Llewellyn to continue back home while he went to go search for who was playing the music and talk to them. It was all very odd, since only Rhys could hear the alleged music, and Llewellyn suspected that he was just trying to get out of work, finally just leaving his friend to head home.
When morning came, Rhys was nowhere to be seen, and so Llewellyn told his boss what had happened the previous night. The area was searched, and they even searched the nearby alehouse, but there was no sign of Rhys, and suspicion began to fall on Llewellyn that he had done something to him. This would continue for a full year, before the story found its way to a local farmer who thought it might have to do with fairies. He asked Llewellyn to take him and some friends to the exact spot where Rhys had disappeared, and the farmer claimed that it was a fairy circle and that Rhys had been snatched away within it. At that moment Llewellyn could allegedly hear harp music that no one else could, and the farmer noticed that the servant’s foot was partly within the circle. When all present placed their feet within the circle, they found that they too could hear the music, and they could also see little child-sized figures dancing about along with the missing Rhys.
Llewellyn then grabbed his friend and pulled him out of the circle, after which Rhys said he wanted to dance a little more, as he had just gotten there. When asked what he meant, Rhys claimed to have been there for scarcely 5 minutes, despite the fact that a whole year had passed. Indeed, he had no inkling at all that he had been gone so long, and he also found himself unable to clearly remember his time with the little people in that circle. The next morning the circle was checked to find that it was trodden down and filled with tiny footprints the size of a person’s thumb. Oddly, after leaving the circle Rhys’ health would rapidly deteriorate, and he would die not long after. What happened here? Some of these cases can be quite harrowing, such as an account written of in the 1910 book The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, by W.Y. Evans-Wentz. The case revolves around a witness who says that when he was a boy he was out with his brother and cousin when they were almost abducted by a group of fairies. He says of the bizarre experience:
One day, just before sunset in midsummer, and I a boy then, my brother and cousin and myself were gathering bilberries (whortleberries) up by the rocks at the back of here, when all at once we heard music. We hurried round the rocks, and there we were within a few hundred feet of six or eight of the gentle folk, and they dancing. When they saw us, a little woman dressed all in red came running out from them towards us, and she struck my cousin across the face with what seemed to be a green rush. We ran for home as hard as we could, and when my cousin reached the house she fell dead. Father saddled a horse and went for Father Ryan. When Father Ryan arrived, he put a stole about his neck and began praying over my cousin and reading psalms and striking her with the stole; and in that way brought her back. He said if she had not caught hold of my brother, she would have been taken forever.
From the same book is the story of a man who tells of his frightening encounter with what he calls the “gentry,” another word for fairy. One day as he was out near a place called Ben Bulbin he had a curious encounter with a fairy that seemed about to abduct him. He says of the rather odd series of events:
When I was a young man I often used to go out in the mountains over there to fish for trout, or to hunt; and it was in January on a cold, dry day while carrying my gun that I and a friend with me, as we were walking around Ben Bulbin, saw one of the gentry for the first time. I knew who it was, for I had heard the gentry described ever since I could remember; and this one was dressed in blue with a head-dress adorned with what seemed to be frills. When he came up to us, he said to me in a sweet and silvery voice, "The seldomer you come to this mountain the better. A young lady here wants to take you away." Then he told us not to fire off our guns, because the gentry dislike being disturbed by the noise. And he seemed to be like a soldier of the gentry on guard. As we were leaving the mountains, he told us not to look back, and we didn't. Another time I was alone trout-fishing in nearly the same region when I heard a voice say, "It is ------ bare-footed and fishing." Then there came a whistle like music and a noise like the beating of a drum, and soon one of the gentry came and talked with me for half an hour. He said, "Your mother will die in eleven months, and do not let her die unanointed." And she did die within eleven months. As he was going away he warned me, "You must be in the house before sunset. Do not delay! Do not delay! They can do nothing to you until I get back in the castle." As I found out afterwards, he was going to take me, but hesitated because he did not want to leave my mother alone. After these warnings I was always afraid to go to the mountains, but lately I have been told I could go, if I took a friend with me.
In some cases people have been reported as being gone for a length of time, only to somehow find their way back, usually dazed, confused, and with no clear memory of what has happened to them. One report from The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries speaks of this, and explains how something about what it calls “Fairyland” as being a place in which time runs differently, and which has a way of preventing the abductee from being able to speak of it. It explains:
Persons in a short trance-state of two or three days duration are said to be away with the fairies enjoying a festival. The festival may be very material in its nature, or it may be purely spiritual. Sometimes one may thus go to Faerie for an hour or two; or one may remain there for seven, fourteen, or twenty-one years. The mind of a person coming out of Fairyland is usually a blank as to what has been seen and done there. Another idea is that the person knows well enough all about Fairyland, but is prevented from communicating the knowledge. A certain woman of whom I knew said she had forgotten all about her experiences in Faerie, but a friend who heard her objected, and said she did remember, and wouldn't tell. A man may remain awake at night to watch one who has been to Fairyland to see if that one holds communication with the fairies. Others say in such a case that the fairies know you are on the alert, and will not be discovered.
Similarly we have a case from Ancient Origins, which relates the bizarre ordeal of a woman who disappeared near what is called a “Fairy Fort,” usually a mound, cairn of rocks or boulder that draws in fairies and has great significance for them. The report reads:
Finally, as an example of this darker aspect to fairy encounters this account from the Irish folklore archives demonstrates the upset and the confusion which many feel before they can even speak about what they believe happened to them. In this case a family happen to live close to an ancient fairy fort and one morning as a woman is using a spinning wheel she noticed a tiny person standing by the door of the house. When the woman stood up and walked to the door to investigate she was taken away by a group of small people. When the family arrived home and noticed their aunt had vanished they searched everywhere in the vicinity but found no sign of her. They searched the drains, the ditches and even the fairy fort itself. It was on the third day of her disappearance that one of the family was walking by the fort when they saw the aunt kneeling next to it. She had vanished while holding a carving knife and this was stuck in the ground next to her. The aunt could not speak for days after her return and it was only then that the family learned of her fairy abduction.
There are countless other reports along these lines, and it all goes to show that the Fae are not always the harmless little forest spirits they are so often depicted as in popular culture. Indeed, in the traditional tales and lore they are generally described as quite powerful beings to be respected, and they are certainly not always friendly by our definition. Such tales as we have looked at here serve to show us a different angle of the fairy phenomenon, and they certainly fire up the imagination whether real or not.