Mexico

Los Aluxes – The Fairies of Mexico by Amy Van De Casteele

When you think of fairies and where they might live, you probably immediately think of Great Britain or Scandinavia. But fairies are far more widespread than you would think and you can find them in seemingly unlikely places – such as the deepest, darkest rainforests of Mexico and Guatemala. Here, there is a lingering belief in the Alux, or Aluxob – little Mayan sprites associated with various natural features such as caves, rivers, fields and forests. Bearing more than a passing resemblance to the Celtic leprechaun, the Alux are only knee high but have a cheeky, capricious nature which can even extend to outright malice if you happen to offend one of them.

Supposedly born in moonlight, Alux can be called upon to become guardians of your property, and in fact this was a practice among Mayan farmers, who would summon them by building a little house for the Alux somewhere on their property. It was believed that the Alux would come to live in their fairy house for seven years, and during that time they would perform various useful tasks around the farm, such as scaring off thieves and predators, helping the crops to grow and even summoning rain. But when the seven years was up, the farmer was to seal up the windows and doors of the little Alux house to trap the creature inside, or its period of helpfulness would draw to an abrupt end and the little sprite would turn wicked and begin to play tricks on the very people it had spent seven years helping.

Every now and then, an Alux might present itself to a human in order to beg for an offering. If the offering is duly given, the Alux may help the generous mortal by protecting them and bringing good luck. But if the human does not yield up an offering – things are liable to take a grim turn. Easily offended and as changeable in their moods as children, Alux have been known to play cruel tricks on anyone who angers them.

Unsurprisingly, it is children who often have encounters with Alux, sometimes even playing with them on the beach or in the rainforest. American writer Signe Pike supposedly saw one of these Mayan elves during a trip to Mexico, though it appeared more as a mental image of a short, squat troll-like figure than as a tangible form – but it was enough to give her quite a fright! Not surprising when you consider that many contemporary Mayans avoid Alux like the proverbial plague, in the belief that encroaching on their territory may lead to swift – and fatal – retribution by these eerie little people of the rainforest…

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?

Singapore

Fairy Roses, Fairy Rings by Amy Van De Casteele

Fairy roses, fairy rings, turn out sometimes troublesome things” – William Makepeace Thackeray
The inhabitants of Great Britain have been telling tales of elves and fairies for hundreds if not thousands of years. Known as ‘the little people’, the ‘Fair Folk’, the Sidhe and many other names besides, these mysterious creatures have fascinated us throughout our history and continue to do so even now, in this technological age when so many myths and legends have been reduced merely to dusty pages in forgotten books.
While fairies and elves are varyingly portrayed as being helpful, sweet, pure, mischievous and even malicious, one of the most enduring motifs in tales of the fairies is that of hapless mortals being whisked away to Elfland to join in the fairy revels. On the surface this sounds like an enchanting prospect but legend has it that in the land of the fairies time is much more fluid than in our mortal realm and can flow much faster or even stop and stand stock still. As a result, when these unfortunate humans are returned to their homes, they often find that in the “real world” time has galloped onwards and perhaps a hundred years have passed and everyone they once knew – including all their loved ones – are dead.
One of the most famous accounts of a mortal being taken away to Elfland is that of True Thomas, also known as Thomas the Rhymer, who encounters the beautiful Queen of the fairies riding on a milk-white steed. Mistaking her at first for the Queen of Heaven, Thomas consents to ride away with her and is shown “three marvels, the road to Heaven, to Hell and to her own world”. Finally she bestows upon him a gift of “even cloth” and “shoes of velvet green” and, lastly, a tongue that cannot tell a lie – hence his later nickname of True Thomas. He is then returned to the mortal realm where he is blessed with the gift of foresight and becomes a prophet, predicting among other things the Scottish triumph at the Battle of Bannockburn, the Battle of Halidon Hill in 1333 and the defeat of King James IV at Flodden.
Many poems and ballads have been made about the predictions of True Thomas and his supposed encounter with the Queen of the elves. In real life not much is known about him besides his predictions and the fact that his name was probably Thomas of Erceldoune and he was born in or around 1220. No one is really sure how he died but there are two differing versions of events; one says that he was the victim of a political killing; the other more mystic tale states that he lives on still in the Eildon Hills and will rise again one day, just like King Arthur or that other famous prophet, Merlin.
Another famous “real life” tale of a person being whisked away to Fairyland – in this case, for all eternity – is that of the minister and Gaelic folklorist Robert Kirk, who penned the rather iconic A Secret Commonwealth (of Elves, Fauns and Fairies) back in 1692. A dedicated scholar, devoted husband and minister of Balquhidder and then his hometown of Aberfoyle until his death, Robert published a few other Gaelic works and oversaw the printing of the Gaelic Bible which was published in 1690, but it was his work on folklore and fairies which has brought him most renown. The reason for this is partly the work itself but also the romantic and rather haunting mystery surrounding his death.
Robert Kirk passed from this world on May 14 1692 at the relatively young age of 48; his body was found on the slopes of what was known as the “fairy hill” above the village of Aberfoyle. Although there is a grave and a tombstone with his name on it in the churchyard it is rumoured that no corpse is interred there; that, in fact, Robert Kirk’s body was spirited away to Fairyland where he will dwell for all eternity and serve as chaplain to the Fairy Queen. This seems an ethereal and very romantic notion; however a darker version of the story says that the fairies took him because they were angry at how he had betrayed their secrets, and another equally disturbing rumour is that the fairies imprisoned him in the lonely Scots pine which stands atop the hill, echoing the fate of the Arthurian mystic Merlin, who was also held captive in such a way in the forest of Broceliande.
It is even said that the spirit of Robert Kirk appeared both to his pregnant widow and to his cousin, begging them to free him from Fairyland, and later Colin Kirk, the unfortunate folklorist’s eldest son, stated that his father came to him in dreams and told him that he could be saved if a child was christened at the Aberfoyle manse and a dirk stuck into his chair. Unfortunately it seems that this has never been achieved and local people say that if you cross the bridge to go up the fairy hill where he died you will feel a heavy weight riding on your back – the poor lost spirit of Robert Kirk himself, clinging to your mortal flesh, still desperate to be rescued from his eternal captivity.
Of course there are many fairy tales and fictional accounts of people being stolen away to Elfland but these reports of true-life encounters with the Fair Folk are enough to give us pause, to send shivers rippling down our spines and raise the fine hairs on the back of our necks. While the “abduction” of Thomas the Rhymer and Robert Kirk took place centuries ago, there have been more recent stories of strange vanishings, such as the 1960’s case of the little boy from Govan, who was walking home along the road with his brothers when suddenly he disappeared as if into thin air – he hasn’t been seen since.
Whatever you believe – or don’t – about the Fair Folk there is no doubt that humans remain fascinated by tales of these fantastic creatures; perhaps within us all there is some ancestral yearning for a connection with the mystical, making the idea of a sojourn in Elfland seem desirable despite the inherent otherworldly quality of this place; the element of danger and death. Whether it is a real place or not, Fairyland will continue to haunt our dreams and imaginings for many years to come.
Scotland

Goblin Ha’, Yester Castle by Amy Van De Casteele

One of Scotland’s most notorious haunted castles – and there are several – must surely be Yester Castle, an ancient 13th century ruin situated in East Lothian. Crowning a promontory and surrounded by trees the castle’s surroundings can be creepy enough, but Yester Castle is home to the spookily named Goblin Ha, or Goblin Hall, a vaulted gothic chamber supposedly built by sorcery. It was in this underground hall where the castle’s founder, a Norman immigrant named Sir Hugo de Giffard, was said to have practised black magic, leading to his nickname – the “Wizard of Yester”. Sir Hugo was believed to be a necromancer, a wicked sorcerer, who made a pact with the Devil. Through this pact he acquired an army of hobgoblins – his servants and the supposed builders of the castle.
 
It is thought by more sceptical minds that the gothic style of the chamber’s ceiling was the reason for the rumours about goblins having erected the hall and indeed the castle itself. And it’s true that the ceiling is one of the oldest gothic ceilings in the world. But more imaginative people will note that the door leading into the hall from the outside seems the perfect size for a goblin! 
Goblin Ha’s reputation for magic and enchantment is well-known and has even been immortalized on paper, as Sir Walter Scott famously mentioned the subterranean hall in his epic poem “Marmion”:
 
‘Of lofty roof and ample size
Beneath the castle deep it lies;
To hew the living rock profound,
The floor to pave, the arch to round,
There never toiled a mortal arm;
It all was wrought by word and charm.’
 
Nowadays the hall is visited by young people hoping to investigate the truth behind the rumours of goblins and black magic – or just to enjoy the titillating thrill of being in a supposedly mystical chamber. Mysterious sounds and lights are said to emanate from the Ha’ at night, but it seems no one has ever dared to investigate them. Forays into the goblin hall are best left for the daylight hours, when necromancy and devilish creatures seem to lose their aura of vivid menace.
 
If you would like to see this notorious chamber for yourself then head to the village of Gifford, a few miles south of Edinburgh and find your way to Yester Castle. Be sure to ask a local for directions, and make sure you get permission to enter the Castle grounds as it is not a tourist attraction. Then wend your way through the trees and nettle-strewn gullies, past the mighty castle wall, until you find yourself at the entrance to the Ha’. Wear sensible shoes and make sure someone knows where you have gone, because the ruin has dangerous steps and hidden places and is out of earshot. Besides that you never know what spooky creatures you might stumble upon, if the rumours about the castle’s devilish origins are true…