Disney and other Hollywood sanitizers have convinced everybody that fairies are benevolent wish-granters, or maybe environmental champions. But in actual folklore? Fairies are terrifying. They're more into baby-stealing and murder than pixie dust. Here are 10 terrifying things fairies could do to you.
Fairies, or the “Good People” from the legends of Ireland, Scotland and England, are usually depicted as capricious at best, and downright wicked at worst.
While probably most cultures have tales of earth spirits with uneasy relationship to humans, the Celtic fairies have done a lot to inform the modern popular interpretation of what a fairy is and looks like. Part of this is due to the collection of fairy lore as a serious anthropological pursuit in the 1880s by noted scholars and poets like W.B. Yeats and the gorgeous and romantic Pre-Raphaelite art movement that illustrated the tales.
Sensibly superstitious people sought to avoid the notice and ire of the fairies. The terms “Good People” or “Fair Folk” were used to placate a temperamental neighbor — and as an accurate description of their general nature. With good reason — get on the bad side of a fairy, and they would mess you up.
Here are some examples of their less friendly behavior:
Giving your soul to the devil
According to the ballad of Tam Lin, the Fairy Queen pays a tithe to Hell every seven years. The fairies kidnap mortals, like Tam Lin, to pay their due on Halloween. It is from this fate that Janet must save her lover. There are several modern recordings of the songs, from groups like Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention, and the Medieval Babes. And Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin is a modern novelization of the tale.
Keeping sailors’ souls as collectables
In the story "Soul Cages" collected in Yeats' Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, an otherwise sociable and friendly merrow (a type of merman) collects the souls of drowned sailors. The merrow places lobster pots at the bottom of the ocean and the confused, cold souls of the dying sailors seek refuge in them. The pots are collected and put on the merrow's curiosity shelf — but other than that the merrow was an alright and friendly fairy.
There are a ton of fairies that specialize in drowning, like Jenny Greentooth and the Scottish Dracae. George Douglas in Scottish Fairy and Folk Tales says the Dracae lure women into the water by showing them a golden bauble. Sometimes the women are just abducted and not drowned. Kelpie are horse shaped fairy folk that lure riders onto their back and ride into a lake to drown them like in the “Whitsuntide Legend of the Fairy Horses”. In an interesting a weird variation of the tale, “The Doomed Rider,” a kelpie is a harbinger of drowning though it doesn’t actually participate.
Stealing and Enchanting Brides
On the subject of abduction, the fairies often stole young women as brides, or perhaps for other, less honorable purposes. In the aptly named tale “Stolen Bride,” a gang of fairies carries off a young woman, and something similar happens in "Jamie Freel and the Young Lady". In both cases, the women are put under an enchantment that leaves them mute and confused. Being noble does nothing to protect a woman, especially if the King of Fairies takes a shine to you, as in the tale Ethna the Bride.
Stealing new mothers to serve as nursemaids
Having children also makes a woman vulnerable to fairy abduction. Fairies will steal mothers directly from their child bed, and often leave a doppelganger in their place that would appear to die according The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies from 1691. After service in the fairy realm, the woman will sometimes be released to return to her family. If the husband has remarried, due to thinking the mother was dead, he has to divorce the second wife. According to lore, though, the fairies aren't completely heartless. The poem The Fairy Nursemaid tells of how they let a captured human mother return to her child at night for feeding.
While human women tend to be carried off, men tend to be seduced by fairy women. While the activity is more pleasant, it still doesn’t end well for the men. Yeats describes a type of fairy called the Leanhaun Shee (Fairy Mistress) If a man refuses her love she becomes their slave, but if they accept her love they are trapped by the fairy until they find another to take their place. She is considered the Gaelic muse and the inspiration for art and poetry, but she dries a man up and leaves him a wreck. It is said this why the Irish poets die young. The poem La Belle Dame Sans Merci is an interpretation of Keats about a seductive fairy leaving a man a wreck. “The Dream of Angus” is an ancient legend where a proud warrior is brought low by pining for a supernatural woman.
There is a male fairy seducer called gean-cānach (love talker) who's described by Yeats. He seduces shepherdesses and milkmaids and ruins their reputations.
One of the more common and disturbing practices of the fairies of lore is stealing babies and leaving a changeling in their place. The fake child is always sickly looking and fussy. The only way to truly determine if a person is a changeling is a trial by fire, or the application of a red hot poker. The story of “The Brewery of Eggshells” shows how a mother tricks a fairy into revealing itself and winning her own child back. If a mother is too soft-hearted to put a red hot poker to a child and a fairy stays in the house, things go poorly for the rest of the ,family as witnessed in the tale "The Young Piper." A more modern take on the tradition of fairy baby-stealing is the movie Labyrinth.
Murdering children for petty grievances
You just do not want to upset the fairies, or they will make you suffer. One of their most common forms of exacting vengeance is by killing the children of a family. It doesn't really matter how slight the offense was. In the tale “The Fairies’ Revenge,” a farmer builds his home on the land the fairies enjoy meeting and dancing on. The fairies destroy his livelihood and cause his child to die. In the story “The Farmer Punished,” the farmer is just a tight-fisted skin flint, refusing to share any of his wealth. This angers the fairies who by tradition have rights to any food spilled on the ground. The farmer goes out of his way to make sure not even a drop of milk is ever spilt. In revenge the fairies arrange to have the son killed.
A general over-reaction to rude behavior
If you were simply rude or off-putting to a fairy, they might not murder your children — but they would make you suffer beyond the simple offense. In one story, a boy doesn't let a fairy woman into his house. He's struck with strangeness and terror for the rest of his life, and the family is cursed to poverty and social ostracization. In the tale of “Paddy Corcoran’s Wife” , the wife is sick for years, before finding out the fairies were mad at her for throwing wash water out at the time they were passing by. Remember, the fairies were invisible when she was tossing out her water, so she couldn't have known. In the old familiar tale of Sleeping Beauty, the princess gets cursed to death because a fairy was insulted for not being invited to the christening party. Fairies have a wicked temper.
People with bad characters and dubious behavior leave themselves open to magical enslavement by the faeries. The story of “Teig O’Kane and the Corpse” tells of a rowdy womanizer who's compelled into service by fairies for a terrifying night of work. In “Master and Man,” the hard partying young man is enslaved by a fairy for seven years. The young man thwarts his Master’s wicked plot and get released after one night.
Croker, Thomas Crofton, Fairy Legends and Traditions. 1825.
Douglas, George. Scottish Fairy and Folk Tales. 1901.
Gregory, Lady Augusta. Cuchulain of Muirthemne. 1902
Kirk, Robert and Lang, Andrew, The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies. 1893.
Wildes, Lady Francesca Speranza, Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland. 1887.
Yeats, William Butler, Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry. 1888.