Fairies and the (Restless) Dead

(This is an archived post written by Red, who has since moved to witchcraftinred.com.)

The land of Elphame and the classification of its denizens is something of a mysterious subject, but as December wraps us in her cold embrace and the Wild Hunt tears through our skies, let us explore a sliver of the thread running through folklore and mythology that ties some of the spirits we call fairies and the spirits of human dead together.

In Celtic folklore, the realm of the fairies was often thought to be, if not synonymous, at least overlapping to some extent with that of the human afterlife. The mounds within which the fairies dwelt were sacred not just because they belonged to the Folk, but also because they were thought to house the souls of the human dead awaiting reunion with their bodies on Judgement Day (Kirk, 1893).  The notion that the dead reside with the fairies as a sort of interim between life and their proper afterlife depicts Elphame and the very nature of being faerie as a sort of purgatory, a state between all realms—living and dead, heaven and hell. It is to be on earth but not entirely upon it as the living are, nor entirely apart as those dwelling in heaven or hell are. It seems to be a state of waiting, of being betwixt and between, neither entirely here nor there.

This idea of Faerie as a sort of purgatory can be supported by the existence of spirits like the Tarans or Spunkies of Scotland, who were assumed to be the souls of babies who died before being baptised that were frequently sighted lamenting their fates in the woods. (Briggs, 1978) Pixies and Piskies were thought to have similar origins as well, being either unbaptised children or the souls of pagans that died before Christianity took hold in the British Isles, and thus “were not fit for Heaven but not bad enough for Hell” (Briggs, 1978), which is a sentiment often echoed in most tales describing the fairies and their origins. Now, that is not to say that all these spirits are necessarily one and the same with the fairies, but as Briggs puts it, “they yet have so much in common that they belong to the same genus”. Yet maybe it is a matter of allegiance that causes these spirits to band together as such: the lack of a prior claim on the souls of these unbaptised spirits may be what allows them to accompany the fairies so (and taking on various behaviors and classifications as a result). Or, if one is to ascribe to the theory that the fairies are the ancient gods that were ousted at the arrival of Christianity, it makes sense that they would be accompanied by the spirits of their followers. After all, folklore is based upon the observations and beliefs of humans, often without much context of what might have passed between the spirits before these sightings or experiences, and the negotiations, bargains, or reasons these spirits may have between themselves is likely to be varied, nuanced, and ultimately not for most to know.

There also exists within accounts of humans encountering faeries the theme of recognising the spirits of the dead in the service or company of the Fair Folk. In the ballad of Sir Orfeo, when Orfeo journeys into the kingdom of the fairies to retrieve his bride from Finvarra, king of the fairies and the dead, he recognises within this world the figures of dead men, all of whom appear to have died before their time for they bear mortal wounds: headlessness, missing limbs or marks of strangulation. In addition, there is a story in Lady Wilde’s Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland, wherein a man travelling on November’s Eve finds himself caught up in a fairy fair and recognises amongst their company the faces of friends and villagers who had died. 

And when Hugh looked he saw a girl that had died the year before, then another and another of his friends that he knew had died long ago; and then he saw that all the dancers, men, women, and girls, were the dead in their long, white shrouds.

Lady Wilde. “Ancient legends, Mystic Charms & Superstitions of Ireland”

The witch trials in Scotland present a theme of witches having familiar spirits that were associated with Elphame (if not thought to be fairies themselves) that once were human dead. Alison Pearson, for instance, claimed that several deceased members of her family now resided in Elphame; Andro Man spoke of knowing several human dead in their company, one of whom was the late King James IV, who had been killed at the Battle of Flodden. Elspeth Reoch had a similar arrangement with a relative called John Stewart, who had been murdered (Kruse, 2021), and Bessie Dunlop made mention in her confession of a spirit named Thomas Reid, a former officer who had been killed in battle. She also recognised the Laird of Auchinskeith—who had been deceased for nine years at the time of the sighting—travelling with the fairies. Note that the mentions of the dead in the realm of the fairies or in their company are often noted to have died violent deaths: significant perhaps because of their violent nature, or because dying in such a fashion was thought to be premature.

The importance of such deaths might be seen more clearly by examining the fate of the Bean-Nighe —the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth—usually thought to be a fairy or at the very least, something fairy-adjacent. She is most often sighted beside quiet bodies of water, washing and beating the clothes of those soon to die; her presence is usually interpreted as a sign that death is near. Like certain fairies, who are noted to occasionally have exaggerated and unusual features, she is noted to possess extremely long breasts, and sometimes to be short as a child and is sometimes dressed in green (the colour of the fairies). Her state was thought to be a result of the circumstances of her death:

Women dying in childbed were looked upon as dying prematurely, and it was believed that unless all the clothes left by them were washed they would have to wash them themselves till the natural period of their death.

John Gregorson Campbell. “Superstitions of the Highlands & Islands of Scotland”

This concept of being stuck in this purgatorial state because of premature death may explain not just her fate and those above, but it also sheds light on the circumstances that might result in a spirit gaining more of a fairy nature: the presence of a liminal factor during death. Female spirits becoming notable restless spirits is a theme echoed in cultures around the world, and I wonder if it is the liminal nature of such deaths that results in this—the process of giving birth places both mother and child in a sort of liminal state, and perhaps it is death during this that contributes to their altered state. 

Other spirits falling under this umbrella of fairies that were thought to have originated from spirits that could be classified as the restless dead include the Sluagh of Scotland. They were to be “the most formidable of the Highland fairy people” (Briggs, 1978) and were perceived as comprising of the spirits of the evil, or unforgiven dead. They were known to fly through the skies, haunting the sites of their crimes on earth and fighting battles against one another. They were famed for killing animals with the use of darts that never missed, and for enslaving mortal men to their will. Like the other spirits we have already mentioned, the Sluagh are thought to be in a form of purgatory, unable to ascend to heaven until their transgressions have been atoned for. (Briggs, 1978) Unlike some of the other spirits we have examined, however, the condition that has to be met in order to release these spirits from this purgatory appears to be far more attainable, and yet their predisposition and enjoyment of violence prevent this. It is a separate sort of purgatory: not so much born out of being caught between life and death or stuck in a position where death has claimed one early, but out of dying with ties strong enough to tether them to this plane enough that they cannot move on without its resolution.

Obviously, death is the main catalyst for this metamorphosis that enables the transformation into beings closer to those we call fairies, perhaps because it removes the obstacles that hinder easier access to our powers: similar to the spirit death that transforms and creates witches. Not unlike spiritual death, for this transformation to be complete, it would appear that specific conditions must be met. In most cases, that seems to be a lack of completion in one’s lifetime, whether that is caused by an early and violent death or some religious or personal circumstance (which also happen to be a hallmark of the restless dead). The idea of fairies being an unfettered version of the human soul is likewise explored by Kirk, who suggests that “the small size of the fairies might be plausibly accounted for by the primitive idea of the soul as a miniature replica of the man himself, which emerged from the owner’s mouth in sleep or unconsciousness. If its return was prevented, the man died.” Yet, it is interesting to note that most of these tales make mention of the majority of the human dead often either in service to the Good People, or merely as dancers and revelers in their company. It seems that death alone is enough to allow human souls to partake in the revels or journey in the company of the Folk, to serve as their messengers or dwell in their hills, enough that a broad generalization could lump them in that classification, but it does not necessarily make these spirits truly ‘Faerie’. For that, it appears that intervention on behalf of the Folk themselves is required.

It is entirely possible, of course, that the majority of the human dead and the fairies are merely spirits that overlap and are adjacent or similar enough to share time and space, barring a few exceptions. The circumstances of death and the life lived by the individual as well may determine commonality and shared interests that further allow for this compatibility, and the sightings that occur while these spirits are together engaging in their various activities. Walter Evans-Wentz explores this in The Fairy Faith of Celtic Countries: 

Fairyland is a state or condition, realm or place, very much like, if not the same as, that wherein civilized and uncivilized men alike place the souls of the dead, in company with other invisible beings such as gods, daemons, and all sorts of good and bad spirits. Not only do both educated and uneducated Celtic seers so conceive Fairyland, but they go much further, and say that Fairyland actually exists as an invisible world within which the visible world is immersed like an island in an unexplored ocean, and that it is peopled by more species of living beings than this world, because incomparably more vast and varied in its possibilities.

Walter Evans-Wentz. “The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries”

Fairyland in this description encompasses all of the Otherworld, essentially housing spirits of all categorisations; a sentiment that seems well supported in various accounts of the fairies and their company, but the theories of their origins which encompass not just the dead, but also fallen angels, ancient gods, and old spirits. All of whom, of course, are often thought of in relation to the fairies as well. The origins of the fairy folk are widely ruminated upon: from ancient gods to fallen angels, the shades of human souls, or something that is all and neither of the above. The Folk are complicated, and I doubt that there will ever be a single theory or classification that manages to encompass and hold true to all of The Good People. They tend to, by nature and by will, defy categorisation, so I will leave you with a reminder that it is never prudent to jump to any conclusions or apply generalizations when it comes to Them. That said, I hope my little foray into some of the folklore available on this subject made for an interesting read. If you enjoyed this article, do consider leaving me a tip at https://ko-fi.com/witchcraftinred. Thank you so much for reading!


An Encyclopedia of Fairies by Katharine Briggs
Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms & Superstitions of Ireland by Lady Wilde
Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland by John Gregerson Campbell
The Darker Side of Faery by John Kruse
The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries by Walter Evans-Wentz
The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies by Robert Kirk

Ian. (2018, November 28). Bessie Dunlop, the witch of Dalry. Retrieved from https://www.mysteriousbritain.co.uk/folklore/bessie-dunlop-the-witch-of-dalry/

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