Written by Luke Greensmith
Originally published on February 25th, 2020
Today I'll be taking a look at fairy folklore as a companion piece to episode <<26: In the Land of the Faerie, the Digression is King>>.
This Lukelore follows on quite nicely from Black Dogs, who are commonly held to be a type of fairy creature, but we’re going a bit more general here. This is a topic that Brennan does not like messing with, of all the things we deal with, so that should give you some idea now that we aren’t talking Disney fairies here.
First up, a heads up.
You know how my French was rough? Well, we're dealing with Celtic today. I saw a great guide to pronouncing Celtic a little while back: Step one, read the word, step two, WRONG. I shouldn't be too bad as I vaguely know these, but my tongue trips up over certain things. Let's see how we go.
What we call "fairies" now are a very mixed bunch. They're a collection of European otherworldly creatures; the stories of which are mostly preserved from Celtic, Gaelic, and Nordic stories but also anything from a "fairy tale" can also count. Fairy tale creatures as in The Brothers Grimm having sold out and gone mainstream, but still broadly being from the same traditions.
What we consider to be a Fae creature gets extra confusing as they come from thousands of years of oral traditions but have only actually been called fairies for five hundred or so years. The "fairy" moniker looking like it comes from Greek mythology, of all things, and "Fae" is a play on the Fates of mythology. To muddy the waters even further, fairy-like creatures from other cultures typically get the "Fae" stamp added to them (further proof of European heritage there, as the homogenise global variety).
Focusing on the ancient Irish traditions, if only out of desperation for a starting point, fairy creatures are referred to as Aos Sí. Otherworld creatures, or Otherworldly creatures, or of the Otherworld... Celtic is a bit tricky to work through. Actually naming these beings is supposed to be a bad thing though, going on a lot of old stories. Using a familiar name of theirs can get their attention, generally a bad thing. Finding their true name can give you power over them, also a bad if not worse thing as now they're probably angry!
In a way, calling them "fairies" is pulling quite the blinder going off the old naming myths. It gives a broad term for them which isn't actually true naming any of them. This slang term for them from a mere handful of centuries ago probably not even registering for the older creatures yet.
One defining factor of a fairy creature that sets them apart from being some sort of bogeyman, ghost, or demon is that they frequently have a dual nature. The roles they can play can be either benevolent or malevolent. If you follow the rules of etiquette with a fairy they can be helpful and friendly, but doing something wrong can enrage them.
Even make them dangerous…
And even if they like you, plenty of fairies are known for their mischievous natures and their idea of fun may not be so great for the person they are playing with.
They aren’t like us, and it may not be possible to anticipate what they do or why.
My favourite fae creature from childhood was always the Nuckelavee. Anyone who’s got a sense of what a horror fan oddball I am, and always have been, by now is not going to be surprised at this one…
The Nuckelavee is that rare fairy being which is lacking in duality, although it most definitely is held to be fae. Best known among the coast of Scotland and in Nordic tales than in the Celtic tradition, the Nuckelavee hates all humans and kills them indiscriminately.
You would know it if you saw it, or at least know to run away from it, as it looks like some kind of messed up centaur. The entirety of a horse, with the upper torso of a man fused seamlessly where a rider would normally sit.
But not entirely like a man, as it’s long grasping arms trail so long they can reach the floor.
Beyond the odd proportions, the Nuckelavee is clearly not some strange mirage of a ridden horse for one other obvious feature.
Red raw sinew and veins are exposed.
Feel free to Google this guy! They have a great image gallery online as morbidly fascinated artists take on the tale.
The Nuckelavee will stalk out from the sea to kill any human it spots on the coast. While it probably has the typical fairy weaknesses of disliking iron and Christianity, the go-to staples are probably just going to enrage it so should a monster that would put most of the Silent Hill menagerie come charging out of the sea at you to rip your head off I recommend a Nuckelavee specific weakness here.
This fairy murderbeast cannot stand pure water. If you can get to any of it, especially a flowing stream, you’re fine.
Although… Don’t mock it if you get away. It may remember you if you do, and being a faceless human that got away is one thing. Getting yourself on the shit list of a monster that scared marauding Vikings is probably not a great life choice.
We had a special request for more Banshee material on the back of the Black Dogs episode, which lined up really well with fairies.
While Banshee are usually considered to be a sort of ghost, they are actually Aos Sí, a non-human overworldly creature. Typically they follow an Irish bloodline, wailing their famously earsplitting scream either in mourning at the death of a family member or else warning of impending doom. Because of how frightening their scream is, and what that portents, this Fae creature has a bad reputation which is a little unfair as they're the messenger and not the disaster. I still wouldn't want to mess with them, as that never goes well with the Fair Folk, but while they scare people they're mostly trying to help in their own way.
A Banshee can have quite a varied appearance with the wail being their main identifier. This may be related to the stories which suggest a Banshee will only appear for certain traditional Irish families, there could well be specific Banshee for each of these families.
One description of them is that they are the Bain Sidhe, two separate words spelt excruciatingly Celtic. There are other regional spellings and pronunciations though, it only really bears pointing out that “Banshee” is a relatively recent Anglicised version of the name.
Here are two short traditional stories of Banshee sightings:
A group of children in the 18th Century swore that one evening they came across a little old woman sat on a rock beside the road. At first seeming normal, when they got closer she began to clap her hands and wail in an inhuman way sending them all running in terror. The next day they found out that the old man who lived in the house behind that rock had died around the same time they saw the strange old woman.
Skipping forwards to the around 1900 there was an old lady who swore that, as a little girl standing by the window of her house in Cork she saw a woman in white on the bridge ahead. The figure gave the clear wail of a Banshee before disappearing and the next morning her grandfather fell to hit his head, falling unconscious to never awaken again. One day while this now old lady was ill her daughter heard wailing around, and worse underneath, the old lady’s bed. Her mother didn’t notice anything herself, but soon died. The Banshee wail warning her death was near.
When I set out to write this Lukelore? I expected to cover a lot more ground. It turns out there’s quite a lot to say about fairies so I will definitely be back for future parts, although no promises of when.
That’s all for Luke Lore this time.
I will be back in a month with another episode, and followers on Patreon get this early so check out patreon.com/ghoststoryguys for that and plenty more cool stuff if you want to support us directly.
But just listening is plenty of support in and of itself.
I hope you enjoy my companion show and please feel free to reach out to either the show or myself directly via email or social media if you have any questions, feedback, or requests for Luke Lore.
The show email is ghoststoryguys@gmail .com, and I am Luke Greensmith on both Twitter and Facebook. We also have a very active Instagram account full or fun things we’ve found around the internet and even occasionally news and peeks behind the scenes.
I want to end with one of my favourite things written about fairies, and specifically elves, written by the late great Sir Terry Pratchett for his Discworld novel ‘Lords and Ladies’:
"Elves are wonderful. They promote wonder.
Elves are marvellous. They cause marvel.
Elves are fantastic. They create fantasies.
Elves are glamorous. They project glamour.
Elves are enchanting. They weave enchantment.
Elves are terrific. They beget terror.
The things about words is that meanings can twist like a snake, and if you want to find snakes look for them behind words that have changed their meaning.
No one ever said elves are nice.
Elves are bad."
(Terry Pratchett 1992)