Ireland

Immortal Lovers – The Leanan Sidhe by Amy Van De Casteele

When people think of fairies, the image that usually springs to mind is of a delicate ethereal being with flowing hair and a radiant gleam; an uncanny creature, ravishingly beautiful and – depending on the person – either cute and dainty, or tall and ‘perilously fair’. These beings, which humans have supposedly encountered since oral traditions began, are said to reside in an ‘Otherworld’ on the liminal boundaries of our own – a world that some hapless mortals have visited. To think of the Otherworld is to evoke images of shining beauty, of immortality, of swirling mists and dark deeds and mystical spells.

This ravishing beauty which the fairies embody (and their attendant ‘glamour’ or grammarye, their magical webs of illusion) are particularly crucial to our sense of the fairy realm. This beauty may be no more than a visual deception caused by the fairies themselves but it has led to our fervent belief in preternaturally attractive creatures with luminescent skin and eyes that shine like pieces of sky or sea glass. A form of supernatural being we could easily be seduced by, even fall in love with.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that there are many stories, throughout our British history, which speak of men and women taking fairy lovers or simply being left helplessly enchanted by the magic and beauty of a member of that “Other” realm.

Common among these tales are those which speak of the Leanan sidhe, which is often translated as Barrow Lover and denotes those beautiful fairies who take a mortal partner.

Generally these Leanan sidhe are female but there have also been stories of male fairies seducing young human women. Whatever the gender the outcome of this mortal-immortal mingling is usually the same; the mortal love object gradually becomes mad or simply sickens away and dies at a young age, after living a short, turbulent but brilliant life.

Most often the people chosen to be ‘fairy lovers’ are poets and musicians, to whom the fairy appears as a muse; a source of otherworldly inspiration.

In fact many of the great poets of the last three or four hundred years, such as Keats, Shelley and Byron, are thought to have died as a result of the attentions of a Leanan sidhe. These fairies, a sort of Celtic succubus, inspire their mortal lovers and bring them prodigious poetic or musical talent, immense creativity and a fine-tuned appreciation of beauty; while at the same time draining them of vigour, causing them to burn out way before their time. Hence Keats died at the age of 25; Shelley at the age of 19 – and Byron at the age of 36.

On the other hand renowned Irish poet W.B. Yeats lived well into his 70’s – perhaps because he was well versed in folklore and so was unable to be ensnared by the beguiling beauty of the Leanan sidhe? It is a romantic notion, whether it is true or not. Yeats actually mentioned this particular kind of fairy in his book Fairy and Folk Tales of Ireland and declared that the Leanan sidhe “lives upon the vitals of its chosen, and they waste and die. She is of the dreadful solitary fairies. To her have belonged the greatest of the Irish poets, from Oisin down to the last century.”

Poor, doomed Keats wrote a famous poem about the perils of falling in love with a fairy: La Belle Dame sans Merci. In it he writes,

I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful — a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

There follows a romantic interlude with this beautiful otherworldly being – but things quickly turn sour when the unfortunate man falls asleep and has an awful dream. In it he sees “pale kings and princes too / Pale warriors, death-pale were they all; / They cried – ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci / Thee hath in thrall!’

Horrified, the man realizes they are giving him a warning; but the final verse of the poem hints that the warning came too late, as the young mortal lover remains “in the meads”, a grim figure, “alone and palely loitering”, perhaps waiting for his fairy paramour to return. Anyone familiar with the habits of the leanan sidhe will be well aware that the only likely outcome for the unfortunate mortal is a lonely, bitter death, consumed by longing and desire for a being he can never possess.

The fate which perhaps poor Keats himself was subject to.

Because of the prevalence of premature death in poets such as Keats and some of his contemporaries, and because of the general mythology of destruction and death which surrounds them, the Leanan sidhe are classed as hostile, an evil breed of fairy. But we must not forget that there is another, less grotesque side to them too – after all, while they may cause their mortal victims to suffer from a considerably shortened life span, they do impart great stores of poetic talent and beauty, not to mention a keen appreciation of those most poignant and noble human emotions – love, longing and sorrow. If Keats and his fellow poets truly were inspired by fairy beings and carried off to an early grave as a result, the poetry they left behind stands the test of time and has surely achieved at least some form of immortality. It is arguable that the poets themselves would not have had it any other way; rather a short and gifted life than a lengthy one of literary mediocrity; this is, after all, how such intensely creative types tend to think.

As for the Leanan Sidhe, perhaps they are still among us to this day, drawn to luminously creative souls whom they both inspire and slowly destroy – while at the same time leaving us in possession of a strikingly beautiful literary and musical legacy; otherworldly in its beauty and consummate skill.

Ireland

Fairy Gifts by Amy Van De Casteele

Taking a quick scan through human history, and its many colourful cultural beliefs, legends and mythologies, it seems clear, at least to me, that human beings simply cannot exist without fairies – or at least, not without stories of fairies.

Ever since our ancestors first began speaking about these strange creatures around the flickering flow of a cooking fire, our minds and our myths have been haunted by fairies, by their magic and by their many weird and wonderful deeds.

From Ireland’s supposed historical invasion of the Tuatha De Danann – also referred to as the Shining or Lordly Ones – to the Victorian obsession with tiny, delicate pixie beings with Tinkerbell-style wings, we have told tales, painted pictures and dreamed many a dream of these mysterious creatures.

Of course not all of our beliefs about them are as sweet and cutesy as the Victorian’s precious ‘tiny fairy’ image. In Anglo Saxon times elves were believed to inhabit our meadows, woodlands and hilltops and though our ancestors told stories of how beautiful they were elves were also treated with a healthy mixture of fear and respect. Sacrifices were made in their honour, both to appease them and ask for their aid, and pieces of iron – which they supposedly hated – were left under the cribs of new-born babies, so that the children wouldn’t be stolen away in the night and replaced by changelings. Elves were also blamed for an affliction which was known in Anglo Saxon times as ‘water-elf disease’ but was probably dropsy, and for many years our ancestors had a firm belief in ‘elf-shot’, tiny malevolent barbs shot by the elves which caused illness, lassitude and sometimes even death.

However elves and fairies could also impart good fortune as well as bad. From helping with the crops to – ironically enough – curing diseases, we believed that these magical beings could give us aid when ordinary human techniques or knowledge failed. Two famous gifts said to be imparted by fairies are those of music and literary skill. As I have written in a previous article, the leanan sidhe are ‘fairy lovers’ which legend has it imparted poets such as Keats and Shelley with uncommon writing abilities…while at the same time draining them of vitality and causing their early deaths.

Meanwhile, British folklore – particularly that of the Irish – is filled with tales of people who became able to play sublimely beautiful music after being visited by fairies or falling asleep on a fairy mound.

Many of these tales date back centuries but there is a more recent example of a talented creative soul who was said to be enchanted by fairies. This person was none other than the revered Edinburgh artist, John Duncan, who was described by a close friend (Charles Richard Gammen) as being “the Scottish Blake” and was not only a skilled painter but also a poet, scholar and mystic. Member of the Theosophical Society for almost 40 years, John Duncan not only believed in fairies but supposedly saw them on many occasions when visiting Scottish islands such as Iona. On these islands he saw “not only the Little People but the Lordly Ones”, according to Gammen.

These encounters began on his very first holiday to the beautiful isle of Iona. He was supposed to stay for a few days or weeks at most, but Duncan soon became so entranced by the stunning landscape and ‘feel’ of the island that he ended up lingering for months. He went walking alone one day through the spectacular countryside when he suddenly noticed “two figures – tall and of strange aspect” who were walking down a heather-clad hill towards him. Duncan must have known straight away that they were uncanny creatures for “their feet did not bend the thick heather over which they walked, and they made no sound as they passed close to him…”

The two eerie beings then simply “faded out”, and in that moment John Duncan knew that he had witnessed fairies, walking abroad in the sunshine. From that day forward “he saw other members of the Sidhe on Iona”, according to friend Alasdair Alpin MacGregor, who went on to say that, “He had so much experience of Faerie and the Lordly Ones….that he found himself losing touch entirely with the earth and his own earthly existence. So, in the end, he thought it wiser to tear himself away from that mystical, haunted Isle.”

Duncan, who became famous for his stunning artworks, which had more than a trace of mysticism about them, famously led a somewhat unusual life and some modern-day cynics might say that he was mentally unstable. After all, he openly stated that he heard ‘fairy music’ while he was painting, and he proposed to, and later married, a woman who – he believed – had discovered the Holy Grail in Glastonbury’s Chalice Well (she later divorced him).

Then again, many famous ‘Creatives’ throughout history have been thought to be mad or in some way ‘unnatural’.

One can’t help but wonder if these tragic yet highly talented figures are just more examples of the common belief that madness and genius go hand in hand – or if the fairies, with their power to both inspire and destroy, had some influence on our many tortured but brilliant (and much beloved) poets, writers and painters… Could their talents, and subsequent unhappy ends, have been partly inspired by fairies, their brilliance imparted as a fairy gift? And, if so, was it truly a gift – or (thinking of the resultant madness and premature death) something of a spectacular curse?