One of the central doctrines of the Gaelic ‘fairy faith’ (Irish: creideamh sidhe/sí, Manx: credjue shee) was the belief that the ‘Good People’ could cause illness and disease. Although such a belief is well documented, the mechanics of it have rarely been explored in any great detail, although followers of my blog may have been able to gain a passing insight.
An ‘Elfshot’ or Neolthic flint arrowhead, here mounted as a lucky amulet.
The concept of Tinneas Sidhe (in Manx, Chingys Shee) or ‘Fairy Disease’ was a common across the Gaelic realms, and representative examples of its different aspects have been recorded at different times from Ireland as well as Scotland, Mann and Britain. William Camden’s late Elizabethan nationalistic masterwork ‘Britannia’ contained the following observation on Irish superstition from an English schoolmaster at Limerick called John Good, whose account he dates to 1566:
They think, the women have peculiar charms for all evils, shar’d and distributed among them; and therefore they apply to them according to their several Ailings. They begin and conclude their Inchantments with a Pater-noster and Ave-Maria. When any one gets a fall, he springs up, and turning about three times to the right, digs a hole in the ground with his knife or sword, and cuts out a turf; for they imagin there is a spirit in the earth. In case he grow sick in two or three days after, they send one of their Women skill’d in that way, to the place, where she says, I call thee P. from the east, west, south and north, from the groves, the woods, the rivers, the fens, from the fairies, red, black, white, &c. And after some short ejaculations, she returns home to the sick person, to see whether it be the disease Esane (which they imagin is inflicted by the Fairies,) and whispers in his ear another short prayer, and a Paternoster; after which, she puts coals into a pot of clear water, and then passes a better judgment upon the distemper, than all the Physicians.
The exact nature of ‘Esane’ remains mysterious to this day, sounding suspiciously like the term given for a cure, rather than a disease. However, Good’s account in Camden was partly mirrored by another, written some 300 years later: That of William Wilde (father of Oscar). He researched, wrote and lectured about the folklore of the different parts of pre-famine Ireland, a subject which became more popular in the late 18thC when many of the beliefs in the old ways were rapidly spiralling away. His wife, Lady Francesca Wilde used her husband’s observations and notes in her book ‘Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland’ (1887), in a chapter headed ‘The Fairy Doctor’:
The Fairy Doctor
IF a healthy child suddenly droops and withers, that child is fairy-struck, and a fairy doctor must be at once called in. Young girls also, who fall into rapid decline, are said to be fairy-struck; for they are wanted in Fairy-land as brides for some chief or prince, and so they pine away without visible cause till they die. The other malign influences that act fatally on life are the Wind and the Evil Eye. The evil power of the Wind is called a fairy-blast; while, of one suffering from the Evil Eye, they say he has been “overlooked.” The fairy doctor must pronounce from which of these three causes the patient is suffering. The fairy-stroke, or the fairy-blast, or the Evil Eye; but he must take no money for the opinion given. He is paid in some other way; by free gracious offerings in gratitude for help given. A person who visited a great fairy doctor for advice, thus describes the process of cure at the interview:- “The doctor always seems as if expecting you, and had full knowledge of your coming. He bids you be seated, and after looking fixedly on your face for some moments, his proceedings begin. He takes three rods of witch hazel, each three inches long, and marks them separately, ‘For the Stroke,’ ‘For the Wind,’ ‘For the Evil Eye.’ This is to ascertain from which of these three evils you suffer. He then takes off his coat, shoes, and stockings; rolls up his shirt sleeves, and stands with his face to the sun in earnest prayer. After prayer he takes a dish of pure water and sets it by the fire, then kneeling down, he puts the three hazel reds he had marked into the fire, and leaves them there till they are burned black as charcoal. Ali the time his prayers are unceasing; and when the sticks are burned, he rises, and again faces the sun in silent prayer, standing with his eyes uplifted and hands crossed After this he draws a circle on the floor with the end of one of the burned sticks, within which circle he stands, the dish of pure water beside him. Into this he flings the three hazel rods, and watches the result earnestly. The moment one sinks he addresses a prayer to the sun, and taking the rod out of the water he declares by what agency the patient is afflicted. Then he grinds the rod to powder, puts it in a bottle which he fills up with water from the dish, and utters an incantation or prayer over it, in a low voice, with clasped hands held over the bottle. But what the words of the prayer are no one knows, they are kept as solemn mysteries, and have been handed down from father to son through many generations, from the most ancient times. The potion is then given to be carried home, and drunk that night at midnight in silence and alone. Great care must be taken that the bottle never touches the ground; and the person carrying it must speak no word, and never look round till home is reached. The other two sticks he buries in the earth in some place unseen and unknown. If none of the three sticks sink in the water, then he uses herbs as a cure. Vervain, eyebright, and yarrow are favourite remedies, and all have powerful properties known to the adept; but the words and prayers he utters over them are kept secret, and whether they are good or bad, or addressed to Deity or to a demon, none but himself can tell.” These are the visible mysteries of the fairy doctor while working out his charms and incantations. But other fairy doctors only perform the mysteries in private, and allow no one to see their mode of operation or witness the act of prayer. If a potion is made up of herbs it must be paid for in silver; but charms and incantations are never paid for, or they would lose their power. A present, however, may be accepted as an offering of gratitude…
Although this account is particular to one individual from the South of Ireland, the concepts of the the ‘Fairy Stroke’, ‘Fairy Blast’ and ‘Evil Eye’ were more universal within the Gaelic world, and indeed further afield.
The Fairy Blast: The English word ‘blast’, meaning a ‘gust of wind’, was equivalent to the the Gaelic gaoithe, and the ‘fairy blast’ was referred to as ‘sidhe gaoithe‘ or perhaps ‘gaoithe sidhe‘ in Ireland, a term which was once often applied specifically to tornados and dust-devils, which were once believed potent visible manifestations of this force. The connection between spirits and winds is an ancient one: for starters, the Latin word for ‘soul’, anima, also carried the meaning of ‘breath’ as well as ‘spirit’ and ‘life’. Common technical understanding of spirits was that they were invisible and made of a very rarified substance akin to light itself. Because of this subtle nature, they were only usually able to move very light things, such as the air, and it was common for the medieval mind to attribute sudden unexpected gusts of wind to the provenance of demons or spirits. In fact, modern ghost beliefs still continue this tradition.
Why were gusts of wind associated with disease?
Ireland and Britain are lashed by seasonal winds and storms that are usually fairly predictable on the calendar. These events (more typically at the onset of winter) coincide with a change in the patterns of disease, such as an increase in infectious diseases of the respiratory tract. Wind can itself be a terrible and violent force, and is to be feared for this alone. The ancient ‘elemental’ and corresponding ‘humoral’ doctrines of disease saw health and vitality as being in a state of ‘heat’ and ‘moisture’, whereas the wind was ‘cold’ and ‘dry’, and could therefore be considered contrary to health. The mythological Cailleach Bheur of Scotland personified these energies, as did the Sluagh Sidhe – a turbulent aerial host of roaming spirits who were sometimes held responsible for the effects of the Fairy Blast. In the Anglo-Manx dialect of the 19thC the word ‘blass’ (blast) was used to denote a skin lesion – a spot, boil, lump or rash. The English word ‘blister’ derives from ‘blast’ (a German word), indicating that gusts of wind must have been associated with wind from Anglo-Saxon times or earlier. The suggestion is that external diseases were considered a form of buffeting or abrasion from a force without. Interestingly, in Manx skin rashes were also called ‘Chenney Jee‘ (Irish: Tinneas Dia, ‘God’s Fire’ – Ignis Sacer) as it was commonly believed in ancient and medieval times that the gods or god would burn the wicked with ethereal fire, which of course is also the substance from which spirits and divinities were conceived as being composed of. Of course the Irish/Gaelic word for disease – tinneas – is derived directly form that which means ‘fire’ (teine), illustrating that an ancient concept linked disease to the unseen spiritual fire.
A good crop of Ireland’s prime ‘fairy herb’ – Digitalis Purpurea. Also known as ‘Luss Mor’ or ‘Foxglove’, it was used in ‘cures’ to defeat fairy influence. Notoriously it was occasionally fed to ‘changeling’ children, causing their death.
In the Old Testament Bible Book of Leviticus (likely a product of Babylonian Judaean exiles under the influence of Mazdaism), these cutaneous diseases are referred to by the generic term ‘leprosies’, commonly misconceived of as what we now sometimes call ‘Hansen’s Disease’. In the Middle Ages, the Christian church and society was obsessed with ‘leprosy’ in the biblical context, which was the idea of disease caused by divine agency – outwardly visible marks of divine disfavour. Of course, to country people in the Gaelic world these disease-inflicting agencies were fairies, and the church devised an interpretation that that fairies were elements of the angelic host who had been cast out of paradise in the christian narrative of ‘Lucifer’ and his ‘fall from heaven’. Again, from Lady Wilde’s book:
The Fairies as Fallen Angels
THE islanders, like all the Irish, believe that the fairies are the fallen angels who were cast down by the Lord God out of heaven for their sinful pride. And some fell into the sea, and some on the dry land, and some fell deep down into hell, and the devil gives to these knowledge and power, and sends them on earth where they work much evil. But the fairies of the earth and the sea are mostly gentle and beautiful creatures, who will do no harm if they are let alone, and allowed to dance on the fairy raths in the moonlight to their own sweet music, undisturbed by the presence of mortals. As a rule, the people look on fire as the great preservative against witchcraft, for the devil has no power except in the dark. So they put a live coal under the churn, and they wave a lighted wisp of straw above the cow’s head if the beast seems sickly. But as to the pigs, they take no trouble, for they say the devil has no longer any power over them now. When they light a candle they cross themselves, because the evil spirits are then clearing out of the house in fear of the light. Fire and Holy Water they hold to be sacred, and are powerful; and the best safeguard against all things evil, and the surest test in case of suspected witchcraft.
That this concept was once common across Europe (from Russia to Iceland), indicates that it was an official church doctrine to equate fairies and elves with the fallen angels of the biblical narrative’s interpretation. The legend of the Fall popularly ascribed elemental stations to the angels when they lodged in the various parts of the ‘Elemental’ mundane world. The spirits who occupied the air evidently became the ‘Sidhe Gaoithe’. The gradual onset of skin lesions can fit logically with the mode of action of wind which frequently starts gently and increases gradually. Sometimes, mysterious bruises appearing upon the limbs were ascribed to ‘fairy pinches‘, and in the Isle of Man it was once a customary belief that improper piety to the Good People by not leaving them a bowl of fresh water at night would invite these particular skin blemishes. However, the sudden onset of illness was attributed to what is known as the ‘Fairy Stroke’.
The Fairy Stroke and Evil Eye:
A striking or blow by the fairies (or unspecified spirits) was deemed responsible for a number of afflictions which might sometimes also be classed as ‘Tinneas Sidhe’: A sudden sharp pain, seizure or paralysis was likely caused by a ‘stroke’ or blow from an invisible being. The term even persists in the English language for describing the effects of a cerebral infarction or haemorrhage! The idea of being ‘Buailte‘ (‘struck’), is actually quite a complicated subject which combines with that of the Evil Eye, the Fairy Blast, and the concept of being ‘Elf-Shot’.
A belief that fairies and elves cast darts at people to harm them was fairly widespread, especially in Scotalnd and (hence) Northern Ireland, and was reinforced by the presence of curious and beautiful Neolithic-era stone arrowheads that are not occasionally discovered in the landscape, and have long been a subject of curious speculation. Lady Wilde’s description of girls being considered ‘fairy struck’ when they pined away for a supposed fairy lover who desired them owes more, it seems, to the concept of the ‘Evil Eye’ or ‘Jealous Eye’, or to the concept of fairies ‘taking’ people, changelings etc. The mysterious plasticity of this belief in ‘striking’ is best approached by trying to understand the ancient beliefs about light, vision, intellect, the soul and spirits. I have attempted to explain the concept in this article here. See here also. As ‘striking unknown’ and the ‘bad eye’ were also attributes often popularly ascribed to humans practising magic or witchcraft, is somewhat complicated by Robert Kirk’s famous and detailed 17thC account of fairy traditions in the Scottish Highlanders who believed that living people were accompanied by a ‘spirit double’ who is one of the fairies, or as he calls them – Sith:
…THEY (Ed: fairies) are clearly seen by these Men of the SECOND SIGHT to eat at Funeralls & Banquets; hence many of the Scottish-Irish will not teast Meat at these Meittings, lest they have Communion with, or be poysoned by, them. So are they seen to carrie the Beer (Ed: Bier) or Coffin with the Corps among the midle-earth Men (Ed: people of our world) to the Grave. Some Men of that exalted Sight (whither by Art or Nature) have told me they have seen at these Meittings a Doubleman, or the Shape of some Man in two places; that is, a superterranean and a subterranean Inhabitant, perfectly resembling one another in all Points, whom he notwithstanding could easily distinguish one from another, by some secret Tockens and Operations, and so go speak to the Man his Neighbour and Familiar, passing by the Apparition or Resemblance of him. They avouch that every Element and different State of Being have Animals resembling these of another Element; as there be Fishes sometimes at Sea resembling Monks of late Order in all their Hoods and Dresses; so as the Roman invention of good and bad Dæmons, and guardian Angells particularly assigned, is called by them an ignorant Mistake, sprung only from this Originall. They call this Reflex-man a Co-walker, every way like the Man, as a Twin-brother and Companion, haunting him as his shadow, as is oft seen and known among Men (resembling the Originall,) both before and after the Originall is dead, and wes also often seen of old to enter a Hous, by which the People knew that the Person of that Liknes wes to Visite them within a few days. This Copy, Echo, or living Picture, goes att last to his own Herd. It accompanied that Person so long and frequently for Ends best known to it selfe, whither to guard him from the secret Assaults of some of its own Folks, or only as ane sportfull Ape to counterfeit all his Actions. However, the Stories of old WITCHES prove beyond contradiction, that all Sorts of People, Spirits which assume light aery Bodies, or crazed Bodies coacted by forrein Spirits, seem to have some Pleasure, (at least to asswage from Pain or Melancholy,) by frisking and capering like Satyrs, or whistling and screeching (like unlukie Birds) in their unhallowed Synagogues and Sabboths. If invited and earnestly required, these Companions make themselves knowne and familiar to Men; other wise, being in a different State and Element, they nather can nor will easily converse with them…
Kirk’s account is perhaps the most technical and in-depth of the system behind the fairy belief that we have, written down as it was at the behest of his friends excitedly discussing the emerging scientific revolution among London’s coffee shops and salons. His account is interesting as it emphasises that the Sith or fairies sicken by stealing away the quintessence of earthly objects, beasts and people. He mentions that the Sith strike and pierce, but merely as a means for extracting what they are after:
…They also pierce Cows or other Animals, usewally said to be Elf-shot, whose purest Substance (if they die) these Subterraneans take to live on, viz. the aereal and ætherial Parts, the most spirituous Matter for prolonging of Life, such as Aquavitæ (moderately taken) is among Liquors, leaving the terrestrial behind. The Cure of such Hurts is, only for a Man to find out the Hole with his Finger; as if the Spirits flowing from a Man’s warme Hand were Antidote sufficient against their poyson’d Dairts…
Of course, the Evil Eye was also responsible for causing transference of quintessence and the Manx called this stolen substance ‘Tarra’, ‘Tharroo’ or ‘Tharrey’. They referred to the condition of being afflicted with the Evil Eye ‘yn aarcheoid‘, and employed a number of charms and rituals in order to recover lost Tarra caused by this state. Manx accounts of the effect of the evil eye and fairies, like many Gaelic fairy tales from elsewhere are frequently accompanied by the victim experiencing a sudden sharp pain. This is illustrated in ‘Ned Quayle’s Story Of The Fairy Pig’ from Sophia Morrison’s ‘Manx Fairy Tales’:
…WHEN I was a little boy, we lived over by Sloc. One day, when I was six years old, my mother and my grandmother went up the mountain to make hay and I was left by myself. It was getting rather late, and they had not come back, so I was frightened, and started off up the mountain to try and find them. I had not gone far when I saw running before me a little snow-white pig. At first I thought it was some neighbour’s pig and I tried to catch it, but it ran from me and I ran after it. As it went I saw that it was not like an ordinary pig-its tail was feathery and spread out like a fan, and it had long lapping ears that swept the ling. Now and again it turned its head and looked at me, and its eyes were burning like fire. We went higher and higher up the mountain, and all of a sudden I found myself at the edge of a steep brow and was all but over. I turned just in time, and ran as hard as I could go down the mountain and the pig after me. When I looked back over my shoulder, I saw that it was jumping over the big stones and rocks on the mountain side as if they had been butts of ling. I thought it would catch me; it was close behind me when I ran in at our garden gate, but I was just in time, and I slammed the door upon it. I told my mother and my grandmother what had happened, and my grandmother said it was a Fairy Pig. I was not like myself that night ; I could not eat any supper, and I went soon to my bed ; I could not sleep, but lay tossing about; and was burning hot. After a time my mother opened the door to see if I was asleep, and when she looked at me, HER EYES WERE LIKE THE PIG’S EYES. I felt a sharp pain go through my right leg like a stab. After that the pain never left me; it was so bad that I could not bear to be touched, and I could eat nothing. I grew worse and worse, and after some days my father said he would take me to a Charmer at Castletown. They lifted me in the sheet, four men taking the four corners, and carried me to a cart. Never, will I forget the shaking and jolting I had in that cart. When we got to Castletown I was more dead than alive. The Charmer lived in Arbory Street and they took me to his house. When he saw me he said that they must all go away and leave me alone with him, so my father and my mother went to wait for me at The George. The Charmer carried me to a room upstairs and sent his wife away, and laid me on the floor and locked the door. Then he took down a big book and placed it on the floor beside me. He opened it at the picture of a little plant-I can see the plant to this day-and he pointed with his left hand to the picture, and with his right hand he made the sign of the cross on my leg, where the stab went through me, and said: ‘ Ta mee skeaylley yn guin shoh ayns en.nym yn Ayr, as y Vac, as y Spyrryd Noo, Ned Quayle. My she guin, ayns ennym y Chiarn, ta mee skealley eh ass yn eill, ass ny fehyn, as ass ny craueyn,’ which means in English-I spread this fairy shot in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Ned Quayle. If it is a fairy shot, in the name of the Lord, I spread it out of the flesh, out of the sinews, and out of the bones. That minute the pain left me. I felt very hungry, and the Charmer’s wife set me at a table and gave me dinner. The Charmer went to fetch my father and my mother, and when they came in I was eating like two. The Charmer told my mother I must not go on the mountain alone between the lights again. The pain never came back. I have been sound from that day to this, but I have the mark on my leg where the stab went through as clear as glass to the bone…
The word ‘archeoid’ is suffixed by the Manx Gaelic word ‘-keoi’ (Scots Gaelic = cuthaich), which means ‘disturbed state of mind’, ‘madness’ or ‘frenzy’. It was cured by herb magic and through performing certain rituals. This brings us to another manner in which fairies could sicken people:
Another pathological power believed exercised by fairies was their ability to sicken or delude the mind, causing their victim to go running off (or be ‘carried off’) in a wild fugue or frenzy, to become lost and disorientated. The above tale of wild pursuit by a fairy pig and a state of delirium occasioned by the pig’s gaze in fact embody the synthesis of ‘taking’, the ‘fairy stroke’ and the ‘evil eye’ all together. Being ‘abducted’ by fairies and placed in a state of confusion is one of the commonest motifs in Gaelic fairy stories. It represents the victim somehow having the entrance to the fairy world ‘pierced’ so that he or she might enter its strange dimensions. To return whole from this realm was dependent upon a number of frequently encountered stipulations, such not eating the fairies food, or taking their wine; Not setting foot on their lawns or meadows is a common caution in Ireland’s medieval fairy tales. Not looking back or conversing with spirits is also a common theme, which has obvious provenance identifiable in the mythology of ancient Greece and Rome, such as the tales of Orpheus and Euridice. Fairy ‘taking’ was often ascribed to a ‘fairy horse’ (such as the Kelpie or Nikker) whom the victim rashly decided to try and ride, and fairies were blamed for riding domestic horses at night so that their owners found them exhausted by the morning time. Likewise, humans ‘ridden’ by the fairies would meet the morning dazed and exhausted. The sickening, weakening or befuddling effect of fairies was often ascribed to setting foot upon one of their precincts. Raths, meadows, fairy circles (mushroom rings) and other ‘sidheogue‘ or ‘sidheach’ places had the power to inflict these states. The ‘hungry grass’ or féar gortach, was said to be a patch of grass which had the power to make you suddenly hungry and weak. It was etymologically and conceptually linked to a hunger-spirit called the Fear Gorta (‘hungry man’), a concept recognisably related to the hungry abstracting concept of Fairies desiring the wealth of this world in order to strike a balance with the otherworld (read Kirk and my own commentaries on the Gaelic Otherworld.) In fact, delirium and states of mental confusion are not in themselves uncommon. The elderly are particularly prone to them, as are those who consume too much alcohol for a prolonged period of time. In medieval times, there were further perils faced by the Gaelic peoples which may have influenced their beliefs about mystical and confusing encounters with the Sidhe/Sith/Shee peoples: For starters, famine could cause states of starvation resulting in hallucinations. When food was plentiful, there was the ever-attendant risk of grain crop contamination with the hallucinogenic Ergot fungus (Claviceps Purpurea) as well as the weed-grass known as Darnel (Lolium Temulentum), whose seeds were equally hallucinogenic and could be easily confused for barley. Both of these were known to cause sharp bodily pains as part of their side effects. Darnel also caused trembling and dull vision. Sudden shocks can induce a condition called ‘Transient Global Amnesia’ which seems to be triggered by blood being forced upwards into the neck when people either fall or experience a sudden stressful event, causing a period of memory loss and bewilderment often lasting hours…
Changelings: wasting-diseases, famine and being ‘taken away’:
Obviously, the attrition of jealous fairy-folk was often blamed for the wasting and fading of vitality associated with particular diseases, a fact often noted by observers such as William Robert Wilde during Ireland’s famine era. In Ireland, the term ‘Cnaoidh’ (‘Cnai’) was used to describe the effects of marasmus (whole body wasting due to dietary energy-deficiency) common to that period. Other widespread endemic diseases such as Tuberculosis and Rickets could also cause such states, as would conditions such as cancer. The power of the Otherworld (expressed so potently by Kirk) to take away life and vitality from those considered vulnerable: ‘Changelings‘ were not just infants, but could also be older children, even adults.
The folklore of the ‘changeling’ was a very ancient and common feature of fairy-beliefs up until the 19thC. It was noted that apparently healthy and flourishing children might all of a sudden become sickly and gradually dwindle away. Such beliefs were common before modern medical sciences began to understand and deal with many of the causes of infant and child mortality, particularly malnutrition (which often also affected the minds and judgement of parents) as well as infectious diseases, diabetes and cancers. Formerly, it was believed that the suddenly ‘different’ child was replaced by a fairy child, while the latterly vigorous youngster was taken to continue thriving in the fairy realm.
Summary: The fairies of Atlantic Europe were believed capable of causing disease, either by the mode of removing nutritional vitality and quintessence through their hunger for the goodness of the living, or through physical attacks by searing magical fiery (or chilling) winds, or by dispensing ‘projectiles’ causing sudden ‘attacks’ of disease. They also possessed the power to abduct and control people – making them ‘wild’ or mad.