Over the centuries there have been thousands of fairy sightings. Women and girls have reported by far the majority that I have collected in my own research that began twelve years ago with investigation into children’s psychic experiences. This may be because women have traditionally been more open to psychic phenomena and also because they are more willing to talk about their experiences.
For example Lilian, now a healer and clairvoyant in her sixties, told me that when she was a child:
‘I used to see fairies in our garden in Cheshire, but especially in the woods. They were semi-transparent and tiny with wings. I found myself looking at the little people in shadowy forms. They all looked different according to whether they belonged to a tree, a flower or a bush. Each species were the same colour and even the same texture and would merge into the tree or flower.’
Lilian still sees nature essences in the lovely gardens she creates as does Julie, a medium who described a particular place in Devon, where as an adult she shared her fairy visions with her own children:
‘They (fairies) are very fleeting, like butterflies, but not as small, about the size of squirrels’
What is more, fairies have come into the cities. Layla who is in her early twenties and as a child lived in a council house in a northern industrial town, explained what she saw in her back garden:
‘Faces and forms would appear at the sides of my vision. They would appear only for a fraction of a second, and when I looked again they wouldn’t be there.-----The Tree Men ----were very strange indeed. For a second it would look as if somebody was entering or leaving through an invisible door on a tree trunk The somebody would be very indistinct and transparent but definitely there. On one occasion a head poked out of a tree, saw me and promptly disappeared back inside.’
As well as sightings, accounts of interactions with fairies (some very frightening) are found in folklore spanning hundreds of years, from the Celtic world, from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. Many are remarkably consistent in content over the centuries and thousands of miles. Some recent Alien abduction accounts by women bear remarkable similarities to these earlier tales of fey kidnappings. But for now I will concentrate on the folk tales that form the background.
Midwives were themselves surrounded by magical and mystical associations and were in Greek and Roman times regarded as seers; these wise women/healers were usually requested to attend fairy births rather than being taken against their will. Though they were frequently accused of witchcraft from the fifteenth century onwards, in remote places especially those where Celtic peoples predominated, some of these wise women did continue practising in secret, which may account for them being fetched in the dead of night.
But the myths may be even older and the fairy people the midwives ministered to may have been descendants of the tiny dark Neolithic peoples, who lived in remote forest, marshland or mountain communities. According to Gillian Tyndall, author of a Handbook of Witches a number of these might have existed in the United Kingdom until the end of the Middle Ages when the forests were cut down and the marshlands drained. Others were undoubtedly communities of outlaws or dispossessed peasants living in the forests.
There are still vast tracts of Northern Scandinavia and the Slavic lands that are deeply forested or mountainous and largely unexplored and here the legends persist. In these cases where there was a difficult birth one of the settlers might come into a town or large village to seek the help of a midwife who would be taken in the dead of night perhaps blindfolded to a secret destination. Secrecy is major feature of the legends, but locals would have known of these settlements.
But in the case of inexperienced women who agreed to assist a fairy delivery or who became curious about the fairy folk came salutary tales of the human midwife rubbing one of her own eyes accidentally or deliberately with the oil with which the fairy baby was washed. Afterwards she could see fairy people in the everyday world, a gift that normally resulted in the brutal putting out of the offending eye, when she acknowledged the fairy mother or relatives at market, days or weeks later. This again may be a folk memory of women who revealed the location of the outlaw community to which they had ministered. Of course the stories may be true.
Nursing mothers were, according to folklore, in great demand to suckle fairy babies both because of their milk which was said to be richer than that of fairy mothers and in the hope of transmitting to the fairy baby a soul that it lacked. They also suckled mortal babies abducted to fairyland. Again there is a direct parallel with accounts by abductees of nurseries filled with extra terrestrial babies.
The time of giving birth was traditionally regarded as very magical and dangerous not only for mother and child, but all who came into contact with her, a peril that persisted from child-birth until the churching or purification ceremony of women in church forty days later.
In Europe until the nineteenth century nails were hammered into the mother’s bed and the cradle, since fairies were supposed to fear iron. A fire would be kept burning at all times and milk from a cow fed with straw from the childbed (which also increased the fertility of the cow) would be given to the mother and child. No new mother would leave home after dark before the christening for fear of being spirited away.
It was believed in a variant of the changeling myth that the fairies might substitute the mother with a block of wood disguised by glamour or illusion to resemble her human form but which would be constantly crying and moaning. Many a woman suffering from postnatal depression might have been treated harshly by superstitious relatives, believing the fairies had enchanted her. Beating was one recommended method of revealing the changeling form in wives as well as children.
Sometimes the baby was left behind when the true mother was kidnapped and if he or she failed to thrive the father might blame it on the changeling wife who was not taking care of it, rather than natural causes.
Infant mortality remained high until after the First World War. What is more infanticide, cruelty to wives (and to a lesser extent undetected wife murder) was common until Victorian times.
A wife who consistently produced sickly boys who did not survive or girl children for a man who desperately needed an heir, might suddenly disappear, spirited away forever by the fairies was the official and often unquestioned explanation. In our own age have come horrific cases of bride burnings by husbands and relatives among the Asian community and of young women killed during exorcisms of evil spirits. There are still parts of the world where the value of a woman except as a bearer of sons is low and this is a reminder that it has not that long been otherwise in westernised society.
Records are obviously sparse and fairy abduction as an excuse for wife murder or beating may sound pure speculation. But we do know that in Tipperary in Ireland in 1895 Brigit Cleary was tortured and burned to death by her husband Michael. He claimed that the fairies had stolen his wife and a changeling substituted. Michael insisted that by destroying the enchanted form of his wife, the true Brigit herself would return.
Seven of her neighbours and relatives, including Brigit’s father and aunt, were involved and later convicted.
A hundred years later Angela Bourke, a professor at University College, Dublin and author of The Burning of Brigit Cleary, stated, that the case demonstrated the clash between two different world views, two ways of dealing with troublesome people, two ways of accounting for the irrational, at a time of profound social, economic, and cultural change.
The case revealed that after Brigit became ill, her father Patrick and husband as well as her uncle Jack and various other extended family members decided her apparently seriously worsening bronchial condition was caused by a fairy dart and that she had been replaced by a fairy possessed body. The tragedy culminated on March 15 when after a week of torture Michael set fire to her nightgown, throwing lamp oil on it to make it burn more fiercely, insisting that the real Brigit would appear riding a white horse at a ruined hill fort the following evening. Michael was found guilty of manslaughter and imprisoned for fifteen years. Four of the co defendants were convicted of wounding.
A woman on her wedding day or night was also considered a great prize by the fairies as she was still a virgin but at peak fertility. For this reason until mediaeval times a woman would be accompanied to the church by identically dressed bridesmaids, so that watching fairies could not identify the true bride.
Some of these abductions may have been quite genuine, though the culprits more worldly. For in parts of Europe in the Middle Ages the local Lord was allowed the use of his serfs’ brides on their wedding night.
Rape by wealthy landowners and their sons was a real threat for country women even in Victorian times, especially among servants in big houses. It could be that the traditional return of the abducted bride from the fairies after a year and a day bearing a babe several months old, was an acceptable way for a husband not to appear cuckolded.
She might have been placed in a distant workhouse during the pregnancy, with the collusion of the husband or a father in the case of an unmarried girl.
Unlikely? In the UK during the earlier decades of the twentieth century, unmarried mothers as well as those with post natal depression were routinely assigned to mental hospitals and in some cases disappeared for the rest of their lives.
A typical bride abduction story made into a ballad was of the Scottish Colin whose wife was taken by the fairies, but whom it was said returned invisibly each day to milk to cows and do the chores. Only her singing could be heard. In other versions she returns after a year and a day with a baby. Was Colin keeping his bride locked away because he discovered on the wedding night she was pregnant by someone else, albeit by rape? Did he let her out to do her housework, but allowed no one to see her, only hear her voice? Or was she truly a bride of the fairies?