Daoine Sìth

The view from Schiehallion or Sìdh Chailleann, which translates as

The view from Schiehallion or Sìdh Chailleann, which translates as “Fairy Hill of the Caledonians”. Picture by Marc

The creideamh sí, or fairy-faith, provides us with a rich vein of information as far as the worldview of the Gaels and their beliefs, practices, and lore is concerned. What we see preserved in this lore can tell us not just about the gods, with whom the fairies, or daoine sìth, can be said to have become conflated with,1 but also how they were – and are – worshipped and honoured, and approached (or avoided as the case may be).

The creideamh sí is a living and still evolving belief system and practice found in Ireland, Scotland and Man, which is often still observed but little talked about or admitted to. What was once an accepted part of life – the closeness between this world and the Otherworld, and the influences that the daoine sìth have on our world and even our lives – is not now necessarily as widespread, but it is still an influence in some places, and in some families.

Given the size of the topic at hand, this article can only hope to skim the surface of such a subject. Bearing these limitations in mind, the following will aim to cover:

It might also be useful to refer to Gods and Spirits, and Offerings as well.

Terminology and tabu

In Old Irish, the word síd can refer to either an ‘Otherworld hill or mound,’ or else ‘peace.’2 Modern forms of this word, and words describing the occupants of those Otherworldly places in Irish and Scots Gaelic, both draw etymologically from the Old Irish. Therefore, to name but a few, in Irish we have  – Otherworldly hill, síóg – fairy, síuíl – ‘fairy-like’, síscéal – ‘fairy-tale’ and Síocháin – Peace Process; in Scots Gaelic we have sìth – for both ‘peace’ and ‘fairy,’ sìthean – ‘fairies,’ and daoine sìth – ‘people of peace.’3

Traditionally, however, it is considered unwise to refer to them by anything other than euphemisms – in Irish this could be An Sluagh Maith, Na Daoine Maith, or ‘The Good People’;4 in Scotland we have references such as ‘the gueede neebours,’5 sluagh maith, ‘the Gentry,’ daoine sìth or ‘People of Peace;’ and likewise in Man we have the Sleigh Beggy or ‘Small Folk,’ or ‘The Mob’.6

The reason for this prohibition is because as much as they can be revered by people, they are also to be feared. Some may have a reputation for kindness, but more often than not they cause harm or strife to the people they become involved with, and it is said that to speak their name is to attract their attention. Being invisible to the naked eye, one can never be sure if they might be around to hear you speak of them, and so it is wise to refer to them in a complimentary manner.7 Robert Kirk (for example, writing in the seventeenth century, comments, “for the Irish use to bless all they fear harme of…”8 Other sources suggest that, “The name of fairy was not pleasing to them,”9 and so the euphemisms serve to prevent offence to their ears, as well as to prevent attracting unwanted attention.

As such, although we may be discussing them here in print and not out loud in conversation, it might be wise to follow suit and treat them with due respect. As such, the following article will refer to them as the daoine sìth where possible.10

Origins in Folklore

In literary terms, Kuno Meyer commented that from the ‘internal evidence’ of the surviving literature and later lore, there is a remarkable consistency in how the gods and the daoine sìth are portrayed and dealt with, which shows the Tuatha Dé Danann simply evolved into the daoine sìth, or, perhaps more accurately, we might say the Tuatha Dé Danann were accepted amongst their ranks.11 We might also include the likes of the Fomorians and the Fir Bolg as well, since some of their members also pop up in the folklore (such as Balor’s association with Tory Island).

This can be seen as an accepted fact in some of the folklore, and it is sometimes said that the daoine sìth are the old gods, who:

“…when no longer fed with offerings, dwindled away in the popular imagination, and now are only a few spans high…And they will tell you, in proof, that the names of the fairy chiefs are the names of old Danān heroes, and the places where they especially gather together, Danān burying-places, and that the Tuath De Danān used also to be called the slooa-shee (the fairy host), or Macra shee (the fairy cavalcade).”12

However, accepting this idea is somewhat problematical if it is considered within a Christian context: How can there be gods, when there is only God? Looking to the sources – especially the folklore collected by scholars such as Evans-Wentz in the nineteenth century – we see a number of other possibilities that are common to both Ireland and Scotland which help explain, or rationalise, the origins and heritage of the daoine sìth (regardless of whether it fits a Biblical scheme, it at least accommodates a Christian view). These can be summarised as follows:

  1. They are fallen angels, sent to Earth by God
  2. They are the souls of the dead, denied entrance to heaven, or taken by the daoine sìth
  3. They are the remnants of an underground race – either gods or a pre-Celtic people displaced by the Celts themselves

Generally speaking, one of these options is accepted over the others, or else one explanation is taken as the primary point of origin for the daoine sìth, while it is accepted that perhaps some of them are of different stock. Usually this sees the daoine sìth as being explained as fallen angels, with ranks of the dead – the unbaptised, or sinful dead – living amongst them.13

For the first explanation, the usual form of the tale tells us that their status as fallen angels is a result of the war against God in heaven, precipitated by the rebel angel Lucifer (as found in the Book of Genesis). The ultimate outcome, of course, was that those who remained faithful to God remained in heaven, whilst Lucifer and his followers were relegated to the eternal damnation of hell. According to the Gaels, however, there were others (the daoine sìth) who hesitated, and who sided with neither God nor Lucifer, and instead watched the events unfold from the sidelines.

As such, their failure to show their unequivocal loyalty to God warranted punishment, but not so much that God deemed they should necessarily join Lucifer in hell. Instead, it was decided that the daoine sìth should be cast out of heaven onto the earth (and the waters).14 Some versions say that some of the angels fell on earth, or in the lakes and seas, while some fell to hell. Those who fell onto the earth took up their homes in the sìd mounds, while those who fell into the waters made their homes there. Those who fell into hell came under the influence of the Devil and became the malevolent types of daoine sìth.15 A fifteenth century manuscript version of the story takes a harder view and makes it clear that all of them fell to hell with Lucifer, and are demons sent to earth by him in order to test and tempt humans. This seems to have been less popular in folk tales than the softer view of them.16

Some say that part of their punishment is that they will never know their ultimate fate until the day of Judgement – only then will they know if God has deemed them worthy of redemption.17 There are some tales that tell of the daoine sìth trying to find out if they will ever get back into heaven. The answer is usually a very firm no, but in one story, a host of fairies encounter a priest, who they ask about their predicament. He replies: “You will never enter heaven until this dry dead stick which I have in my hand bears leaves, flowers and fruit.” At that, the priest flung down the stick and stalked off; the next day, however, the stick was found bearing leaves, flowers and fruit, giving the daoine sìth hope at last.18

Sometimes it is said that in order to mark them out from humans and show their unworthiness for entrance back into heaven, God made the blood of the daoine sìth white, and so in an effort to try and rid themselves of this disqualifying trait for their people, the daoine sìth try to steal away humans – healthy babies, or young men and women to take as husbands and wives – in order to try and dilute their blood enough to allow future generations repatriation with God in heaven.19

Clearly there is the influence of Christianity to be seen at work here, and the main aim of the story is to undermine the popularity and influence of the daoine sìth in folk belief, as well as demonstrate the superiority of Christianity over such demonic forces – put firmly within a Christian framework, rather than outside of it.20 This was an extremely common tactic throughout Europe in dealing with beliefs in local variations of fairies – demonising beings otherwise seen as far too pagan to fit into a Christian worldview – but belief in the daoine sìth remained stubbornly popular and came to be reconciled within Christianity rather than relegated and ignored as undesirable and demonic.21

The same can be seen with how the Tuatha Dé Danann are described in Lebor Gabála Érenn: “…some say that the Tuatha Dé Danann were demons, as they came into Ireland unperceived, and they themselves said that they came in dark clouds…”22 Considering the fact that the lines between the daoine sìth and the Tuatha Dé Danann are often very blurry, this is not surprising, and only serves to underline the fact that belief in the gods has persisted for a long time, albeit under a different guise.

Of the second explanation, there are suggestions of both Christian and pre-Christian elements at play. Síd mounds themselves are often associated with prehistoric burial mounds and Iron Age hillforts – burial places and homes of the ancestors. As such, an association with the dead and the daoine sìth seems obvious and unavoidable, but at the time it is one that can be seen as contradictory to the teachings of Christianity when the dead are supposed to go to either heaven or hell. All in all, however, not ever member of the daoine sìth was considered to be a soul of the dead – instead, they were generally seen as a minority amongst the ranks of the daoine sìth.

Evans-Wentz, in collecting a vast amount of folklore on the subject, recorded many instances of the belief in the daoine sìth as souls of the dead being articulated in both Ireland and Scotland.23 Sometimes it is said that those who were thought to have died prematurely or unexpectedly had really been called away to live with the daoine sìth, for they value youth and beauty and have little care or need for the elderly amongst their ranks: “If a young wife dies; she is said to have been taken by them, and ever afterwards to live in Fairyland. The same things are said about a young man or a child who dies.”24 Folklore relating to Donn in particular reflects this as well,25 as does the lore relating to Slieve Gullion in Ireland.26 In Scotland, Robert Kirk is sometimes said to have been taken by the daoine sìth as punishment for revealing too much about them,27 but otherwise it is either a person’s youth, or their state – new mothers or unbaptised children in particular – that make them an attractive choice for being taken (see below).

Some elderly folk said that those who had many deceased friends had many friends amongst the daoine sìth.28 But sometimes the belief in the souls of the departed as being amongst the ranks of the daoine sìth is reconciled in a different manner – these are not young folk, taken to enrich the blood of fallen angels, but the souls of those who are not morally good enough to go straight to heaven, nor yet bad enough to go to hell. In effect, the souls of the dead amongst the daoine sìth might be seen as being in a sort of purgatory – or purgatory itself29 – “till satisfaction is made for the sins of the earth.”30 Otherwise, they can be reconciled as being the souls of the pre-Christian, or unbaptised dead.31

More often than not these souls are found to travel in groups, known in Scotland as the sluagh, ‘the host,’32 or sluagh na marbh (‘the host of the dead’) in Ireland.33 They are often seen as malicious, always travelling through the air from the west, and so when someone is laying on their death bed, care might be taken to make sure that all doors and windows on the west side of the house are secured.34 From a Christian perspective, we might see this as making sense because the west is directly opposite to the east – the east being the direction in which the righteous are aligned when they were buried.35 Therefore, the coming of the sluagh from the west could be seen as indicative of their malicious, negative nature, rather than a Godly one.

From a pre-Christian or even folk perspective, however, we might see this as making sense in that the Otherworldly afterlife was commonly seen to reside in the west. The ‘west’ or back’ room in a traditional Irish house was the best room, used only for special occasions which might include the laying out of the dead during the wake. In this room that mementoes and pictures of relatives who have died were kept, and as Evans notes, it is all very suggestive of the fact that there may be a natural association between the dead and the direction of the setting sun.36 The dead come to claim their own.

Of the third explanation, there are two main routes we can go down – that the daoine sìth are remnants of an earlier race, pushed underground with the coming of the Celts; or else, they are the gods, pushed underground after the victory of the Milesians and then Christianity.37

‘The Little People’

In Scotland in particular, there is a popular theory that the daoine sìth are, in fact, the last survivors of an ancient pre-Celtic race – the small, dark-haired Picts. This is primarily thanks to David MacRitchie, who explicitly made the connection in the nineteenth century, but seeds of the idea had been kicking around for a good few centuries before then.38

In the eleventh century, Adam of Bremen wrote of the little Picts who live underground in his History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen; likewise they are mentioned in the thirteenth century Historia Norwegiae, and until recently the Picts were certainly thought of as unlikely to have been non-Celtic – pre-Celtic inhabitants of Scotland. Archaeology has shown that there is no such evidence for a race of little people in Scotland or anywhere else in the British Isles,39 and work on linguistic evidence shows that they are indeed likely to have been Celts.40

In spite of the fact that the theory is no longer accepted at all in academia,41 it’s one that remains popular outside of it, usually with the Picts still surviving underground to this day (or dying out within only recent history) and preserving ancient traditions and beliefs. The idea is especially popular within some neopagan traditions, no doubt influenced by the likes of Marion Zimmer-Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon.

A similar theory held that the daoine sìth are the remnants of the druids, priestly magicians who use their occult powers to remain hidden, though this idea has not caught the imagination in the same way as the Pictish little people.42 In either case, the idea usually has the roots of the daoine sìth as both pre-Christian, pre-Celtic, and pre-Iron Age in origin. The advent of iron, brought by the invaders who displaced them, might be seen as the primary reason for their being pushed to the sidelines (since their own technology couldn’t possibly compete against such advanced and superior weaponry) is often given as the reason for the aversion of the daoine sìth to it.

Otherworldly haunts

As has already been mentioned, ‘síd‘ is an Old Irish word that can refer to either an Otherworldly hill or mound (i.e. places where the daoine sìth might live), or else it can simply mean ‘peace.’43 Whether we are looking at two different words – homonyms – or a word that was then glossed with an additional meaning, which became ingrained, is hard to say.44 However the meanings for the word(s) came about, though, we can certainly say that the coincidence is a happy one, fitting in neatly with what we know of them. The síd mounds are epitomised by peace and plenty, and its denizens enjoy long lives free from disease and poverty, as we are told in the tale Echtrae Conli (‘The Adventures of Conla’):

“I have come from the lands of the living, where there is no death nor sin nor transgression. We eat everlasting feasts without toil, and have peace without strife. We are in a great síd, and are therefore called the ‘people of the the síd (oeis síde).”45

In Echtra Nerai (The Advenure of Nera), we see the Otherworld in similar terms; because it is a land of peace and plenty, it is almost a world of opposites to this world, and so when Nera stumbles into the Otherworld at Samhainn, the beginning of winter, he finds the Otherworld in the midst of summer in full flourish. When he returns to his own people with a warning that the daoine sìth are intending to attack his people the following Samhainn, Nera takes with him a flower from the Otherworld, to prove that he has been where he says he has, and to make sure his warning will be taken seriously.46

The relationship between this world and the Otherworld could be seen as one of ‘dynamic polarity,’ with summer in this world being reflected as winter in the Otherworld, and so on. Brian Walsh suggests that the archaeological finds of broken weaponry and other items found in offering pits also reflects this polarity; “…what is broken in this world is whole there.”47 If this is the case, then tales like Echtra Nerai and Echtra Conli preserve ideas that were at least a thousand years by the time the tales were recorded.

Politically, in terms of early Irish ideology, at least, it is from the Otherworld that the king gains both his authority and legitimacy to rule over his people. In order to maintain this legitimacy, the king must ultimately uphold the principle of fír flathemon (‘prince’s truth’), and by doing so, “…the ruler secures peace (síd), tranquility, joy, ease, and comfort.”48 We can see, then, that as the king rules rightfully, the conditions of the Otherworld are reflected in this world; peace, and the Otherworld, go hand in hand.49

In understanding the nature of the Otherworld, and the relationship it has – or can have – with the world around us, we might then understand the nature of the daoine síth as well. In the tales, we see that when the king commits an offence, it is often a woman of the síd who demonstrates the injustice, or wrong judgement, that he has committed and which then invalidates his rule. The hill that king Ailill sleeps on for three nights appearing stripped bear, followed by the appearance of Áine there at Samhain, for example, in Cath Maige Mucrama (‘The Battle of Mag Mucrama’), are clear indications from the Otherworld that Ailill’s rule is invalidated. This is further reinforced when Áine sucks the flesh from Ailill’s ear (blemishing him, marking him as unfit to rule) as he rapes her.50 Likewise the woman who demands entrance to the hostel in Togail Bruidne Da Derga (‘The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel’) forms part of the gessi (magical prohibitions laid on Conaire that must not be broken) that Conaire is forced to break as his world literally crumbles down around him. Both the woman – glossed as the Morrígan in the text – and the hostel itself are Otherworldly, here.

The association of the daoine sìth with the síd mounds of the gods and ancestors is well-documented, and a tell-tale sign of their antiquity. Mostly, these mounds are actually tumuli, pre-historic burial mounds, or hillforts, remains of Norman mottes and baileys, or else natural mounds that seem otherwise out of place in the landscape. These are not the only place we might find them, though – lakes, rivers, hills, mountains, caves, lone trees or bushes growing in an otherwise barren landscape, or else other kinds of ancient features like dolmens or stone circles. These places are not just their haunts or homes, but can be considered to be Otherworldly entrances.51

As such, there is a certain element of danger about them, and care must be taken. In traditional lore it is considered tabu to disturb areas that are associated with the daoine sìth,52 and this includes places believed to be their homes, or áiteanna uaisle, ‘noble places’, in Irish.53

Some Irish examples of lore associated with disturbing the homes of the daoine sìth can be found in Gods of Landscape and Lore, such as the case of Clíodhna, who was said to have wailed mournfully at the desecration of her rock when people tried to cultivate the area around for potatoes,54 or the Morrígan, who punished a woman for letting a bull into the cave at Oweynagat where the Morrígan corralled her Otherworldly cattle there.55 In Scotland, some versions of the stories surrounding Robert Kirk’s abduction by the daoine sìth say that it was because he was walking near their hill and disturbed them, while he himself wrote: “There be manie places called Fayrie hills, which the mountain-people think impious and dangerous to peel or discover, by taking earth or wood from them; superstitiously believing the souls of their predecessors to dwell yr.”56

In terms of trees and bushes, the most common type associated with the daoine sìth are hawthorns,57 but can also include other trees like the elderberry, rowan, or holly – any kind, really, if the lone tree or bush itself is found growing in a place without having been planted there by human hand.58 These places are considered to be attractive resting places for the daoine sìth, and they are said to dance and play beneath them. Because of this, even though such trees might be found in otherwise inconvenient positions in the middle of fields and the like, it is unlucky to cut or harm them in any way, for it will offend the daoine sìth.59 Many tales illustrate the harm that can befall anyone who might try to cut or chop down a fairy thorn, and often the ill-fate is foreshadowed by the tree itself bleeding as it is cut. Death might be the meddler’s eventual fate.60

Abductions and changelings

At the Quarter Days, and other times with liminal associations like New Year’s eve, the daoine sìth are said to have their flittings – moving from one síd mound or haunt to another.61 It’s possible this belief has its roots in transhumance62 – as the folk themselves move from the homestead to the summer pastures at Bealltainn, or back down from the pastures at Samhainn, so the daoine sìth move as well.

During their flittings, people who brave the evening might stumble across the procession and get taken away; or else one fairy host may come across another, rival host, as they both make their way to another síd mound, and so a battle may ensue (and woe betide any mortal who gets caught up in it all). At Samhainn, in Scotland, this is particularly common, and when the lichens on the rock turn red after the first frosts, it is said to be the spilled blood of the battling hosts.63

Otherwise, the daoine sìth are seen to be most active in the evening – around sunset, or after midnight, depending, and particularly on Fridays.64 The sluagh sí65– generally believed to be the souls of the dead, who flew through the air (sometimes called ‘the host’) – are seen to travel through the air after midnight, looking to abduct men for help in shooting their javelins at cows and dairymaids.66

Other types of daoine sìth might try to enter houses and cause mischief and mayhem at night, and so before going to bed, or stepping out at night it was important to make sure that everything was in order and take certain precautions. Each night the foot water (used for washing the feet before going to bed) was thrown out,67 or else it was kept in the house in the belief that dirty water was a deterrent to the daoine sìth, while a spark from the hearth was dropped in it to prevent them from gaining access to the house all the same; the band was taken off the spinning wheel; the quern had to be dismantled; the besom placed in front of the door. Otherwise the daoine sìth might enter and make work for themselves, and become angry or cause mischief if there wasn’t enough work for them to do.68 Thanking them for their help would cause great offence (or thanking them with gifts or offerings disproportionate to the amount of work done), and at best the daoine sìth would leave and never return (but more likely cause trouble before doing so). Presenting them with clothing was the best way to get rid of them quietly, and without trouble.69

The threshold and walls of house and byre should be sained with stale urine (maistir) or the spittle wisp (sop seile) on the eve of every Quarter Day,70 and anyone having to go on a journey at night might take some salt, iron, or rowan with them to protect against the daoine sìth, and salt should be mixed in with oatmeal if it had to be taken out of the house after dark, in order to prevent the daoine sìth from taking the toradh, or ‘essence’ from it, as well as those crops still growing in the fields.71

In spite of these precautions, many tales tell of how people accidentally stumble across the daoine sìth dancing or at play around the various haunts they might be found at, finding themselves being encouraged to join in with the dancing only to get carried away with it all and never come home; or of how the daoine sìth might tempt people into their síd mounds for one reason or another – a nursing mother to feed a sickly fairy baby, or a handsome lover spirited away by a beautiful fairy woman, and so on.

Time runs differently in the Otherworld of the daoine sìth, and so mortal folk have to be careful. The daoine sìth themselves might not harm the folk who join them in their feasting, drinking and dancing, but it is highly unlikely that any man or woman who manage to return to their normal lives after spending time with the daoine sìth do so unchanged. An evening spent with the daoine sìth in the Otherworld might in fact be a year, or seven years, or even a hundred in the mortal realm. There are many tales that tell of people who spend a night sharing in the hospitality of the daoine sìth and then return home only to find that everyone thought they had been long dead and buried; or that strangers might be living in their home, and nobody has any memory of them at all, so long had they spent in the Otherworld. Shortly after discovering that they had been away for so long – hundreds of years, perhaps – the returnee might crumble away to dust.72 For anyone entering the Otherworldly habitats of the daoine sìth, it is considered a fatal mistake if the person forgets to leave some iron at the door, or indulges in the food and drink, or joins in with the dancing of the daoine sìth; failure to put iron in the door means the daoine sìth could close it and cut you off from the outside world, and accepting their hospitality is as good as accepting your fate amongst them.73

In the tales, those who did manage to return to life amongst their loved ones were never the same again, however; nothing in the real world made them happy. Everything would seem dull and lifeless, tasteless and joyless compared to their memories of their time amongst the daoine sìth, and they would pine away or seek to return to the Otherworld. Often, eventually, they did.74

For women, perhaps the greatest time of danger from the daoine sìth was around childbirth – certainly for new mothers and babies, at least. Childbirth was an extremely dangerous time for both mother and child as it was, without the intervention of the daoine sìth. Between the period of 1600 to 1800, for example, one in four births ended with the death of the child alone,75 and factoring in the considerable risks to the mother it was understandably a worrying time. Modern medicine can mitigate a lot of these risks to mother and child today, but there is no less a sense of Otherworldly danger for some.

For both mother and child, the danger from the daoine sìth was greatest in the time after birth, until the mother was ‘kirked’ (could attend church) and the baby could be baptised.76 Lay baptisms, the ‘fire round’ described by Martin Martin, and other kinds of protective measures were commonly performed as a stop-gap measure in the meantime, and might have their origins in pre-Christian rites. Without them, the mother might be at risk of being abducted by the daoine sìth, where she would be forced into becoming a wet nurse to a fairy child,77 or the child itself might be abducted and the parents would be left with a changeling – a sickly fairy child who would more than likely waste away and die.

A changeling child (iarlais, in Irish)78 is sickly and difficult. Its voracious appetite is impossible to keep up with demand, and it will cry constantly. In most cases, no matter how much the changeling is fed, it won’t grow, or ever be satisfied and it withers away and dies. In the past, should the worst come to the worst for a family, and a changeling child was identified, there were plenty of ways and means of trying to get the child back, but these were often dangerous and in many cases could even be described as barbaric. Sometimes, the solution was to dig a shallow grave in a field on the eve of a Quarter Day, and there the changeling child would be laid and left alone until morning. On the parents’ return, it was hoped that the fairies had exchanged the changeling for their own, healthy and thriving baby, though more often than not it was likely that the baby had died of exposure.79 In other cases, it was believed that the best solution – an ‘infallible’ method of having the child returned – was to resort to laying the changeling on something burning hot. In Ireland, they might be placed on the hearth, with the charm: “Burn, burn, burn – if of the devil, burn; but if of God and the saints, be safe from harm,”80 and if it was a changeling, it would instantly run up the chimney. In Scotland, babies who were believed to be changelings were placed on the cooking plate or a sheet of hot iron with the same intent. More often than not, the result was that the sickly human baby would be burned – even fatally.81

On the one hand, we might see the belief in the daoine sìth as being a danger to newborns and unkirked mothers as being a way for folk to reconcile the often common dangers and problems associated with this time of life in a way that easy to understand and accept.82 More often than not, these changeling children were likely to be human children suffering from medical complaints that the folk had no knowledge of how to treat successfully, and so the inevitable death of the child – from failure to thrive, or else by the methods used to try to swap the changeling for their own child – was more easily reconciled. It was the fault of the daoine sìth, not the parents.

On the other, we can see a variety of reasons given to explain why children and mothers were so commonly abducted. One reason we’ve already seen is that the human children could help to introduce their red blood and so eventually future generations of the daoine sìth could enter back into heaven. Another reason given was that mixing in humans with the daoine sìth might help them overcome their fear of iron – the symbol of their weakness and their downfall against humans in the first place. It was hoped that the mixture of human and fairy blood might then produce a fearless leader who would lead the daoine sìth against the humans and remove them from the land that they took from the daoine sìth.83

Both of these ideas explained why boys in particular were at risk of abduction, because it was believed that as the stronger sex, they would pass on more of their human traits to their offspring.84 Whatever the motive, sometimes it was said that the changeling was not a baby at all, but an elderly and weak elf who was swapped for a healthy human child; or even that the changeling was an enchanted piece of wood. Such was the daoine sìth’s love of children, sometimes they couldn’t possibly bear to part with their own.85

Sometimes, warnings signs were seen that showed certain people or animals as being at risk of being abducted. Mysterious ailments that were otherwise inexplicable were often called poic sí in Ireland, otherwise known as the ‘blast’ or ‘fairy stroke,’ and unless there was appropriate intervention from the local skilly, the person would eventually wither away and end up being abducted by the daoine sìth.86 In these cases, the person didn’t necessarily physically disappear, but might otherwise retreat into themselves or alter to such an extent that they were as good as gone. This leads us to the conclusion than these explanations were often a way of reconciling all kinds of diseases and mental illnesses in a time when very little was known about the way the brain and body really works – depression, dementia, wasting diseases, epilepsy and the like.87

Likewise, fine cattle and horses were at risk of being targeted by them. Sometimes it might be found that cows who were known to be good milkers might be a bit low on milk at times, and this was often put down to the fact that the daoine sìth had surreptitiously milked them. Generally this was tolerated, so long as there was enough milk left for the farmer, but if it was felt that the daoine sìth were taking too much, then the farmer could always resort to threatening them with digging up their fairy fort.88 Otherwise, the cattle (or horse, or even other types of livestock) might end up becoming mysteriously ill, gradually fading away and dying for no good reason. This was often put down to the fact that the daoine sìth had shot them with an ‘elf dart’ or ‘elf arrow’ (as neolithic implements that were often found in fields were known), and so the daoine sìth would take them – perhaps not in body, but effectively in spirit. Small scratches or marks on the flanks of the animal might be taken as evidence of their having been elf shot.89 Red or blue ribbons and silk thread, sticks of rowan, religious iconography, or being washed down with stale urine were all common methods of protection against such a fate.90

In these cases, where a person or animal is afflicted with a fairy illness, they might have been targeted purposely (for some offence given, or as a precursor to their abduction), or else it might happen accidentally. The daoine sìth are said to have the power to turn themselves invisible, and sometimes travel in whirlwinds called Sídhe Gaoithe (‘fairy wind’), or Sídhe Chóra (‘fairy whirl’) in Irish. These whirlwinds are usually found on hot days, seen making their way across fields or along paths when all is otherwise still and calm. From these whirlwinds might come dust that gets into the eyes, or else whoever sees it passing may fall into a sudden faint (although more likely the heat would be the cause); in the latter case, the unlucky victim is said to be suffering from the blast.91

Sometimes the daoine sìth aren’t interested in abducting people, but – for one reason or another – they did delight in causing trouble in other ways. People who frequently suffer from nightmares or sleep badly and wake in the morning feeling unrested might be said to be fairy-struck or hag-ridden; that is, the daoine sìth are using the poor unfortunate soul as a mount each night, riding the person ragged without their even knowing it. The condition is rarely fatal, but utterly unpleasant.92 For the less frequent nightmares, however, these might be attributed to a being known as an tromluí – usually described as a bird that spreads it wings over the sleeper.93

It isn’t just people and animals the daoine sìth might be interested in, though. They also have a reputation for controlling the crops, and if it happens that a field promises a good harvest and yet yields only a disappointing amount, it might be said that the daoine sìth have taken it; things like counting the amount of turnips in a field, to work out how much it might yield, is tabu, since it might alert the daoine sìth to a good crop which they might help themselves to.94 They might also be blamed for potato blight,95 while the daoine sìth who live in the sea, in Tír fo Thuinn (‘Land under Waves’) can stir the seas and the winds into mighty storms.96


These associations with disease and mysterious ailments work the other way as well; just as they might inflict them, the daoine sìth might also provide a cure – or, to be more specific, they might bestow certain people they happen to favour with the gift of healing, or items with which a person can heal.97 Talented singers or musicians, storytellers or poets, and seers, are also often said to have received their talents under tutelage from the daoine sìth, and in all cases it is worth noting that such skills or talents are all traditionally associated with having slightly otherworldly roots anyway.98

Many tales can be found where these gifts are bestowed, often due to someone gladly giving help to the daoine sìth in their time of need99 – lending farming implements and equipment, for example. Often midwives are asked to go with the fairy woman into the Otherworldly síd mounds to help with a particularly difficult delivery, and so on. In these cases, the person who willingly helped out are given a gift, like a cloth that helps with healing or relieving pain. A man by the name of Morough O’Lee lived in Connemara around the year 1700, and it is said that one day he fell asleep beside a síd mound. He found himself in Tír na nÓg (a name for the Otherworld), and there he was taught the arts of healing. Before he returned to this world he was given a book, and told not to open it for seven years. If he did so, he would be the greatest and most successful healer that Ireland had ever known. After three years, however, an epidemic caused Morough to open the book in order to try and prevent so many people from dying. He became a good doctor, but never attained the potential he might have if he had kept to the instructions of the daoine sìth.100 Other people entertain the daoine sìth with their musical talents, and so are taught many different ways to enchant their human audiences and win fame.

Often these gifts come with a price – disparaging whispers and rumours behind their backs, whisperings that say they have a pact with the devil, and so on; sometimes these Otherworldly gifts are a double-edged sword. During the height of the witch hunts in Scotland – between c1560 and 1700 – beliefs began to evolve and the lines between the daoine sìth and devils became increasingly blurry, especially as the question of the origins of the daoine sìth, and how they fit into the Christian scheme of things, came to be more of an issue. With this increasing confusion, it was inevitable that the daoine sìth – as devils – also came to be confused with witchcraft; as witches drew their powers from the devil, so the daoine sìth might be seen as agents working with witches on Satan’s behalf. Gifts – or afflictions – such as the second sight and the evil eye were therefore seen as not just Otherworldly, but rooted in demonic origins; likewise, those considered to have Otherworldly gifts of musicianship or knowledge of healing were equally viewed with suspicion.101

Some types of daoine sìth

All in all, the standard type of daoine sìth (who live in the local síd mound, for example) looks much like any ordinary human – the same, or similar, in height and demeanour, although often slightly paler in skin tone (perhaps from living underground, or because of their white blood).102 They can, however, shapeshift easily, usually in the forms of animals or birds.103

In human form, they are often described as beautiful,104 and dressed in finery of silk or satin – exotic and expensive materials. Red or green are the favoured colours of choice for Otherworldly beings of any type.105 In both Ireland and Scotland they are most usually described as having golden hair, occasionally red, but rarely dark.

Much of this is encapsulated in a twelfth-century poem known as ‘The Hosts of the Fairy’, which describes those who were encountered in Magh Mel (the ‘Plain of Honey’):

No wonder though their strength be great,
Sons of kings and queens are one and all.
On their heads are
Golden yellow manes.

With smooth comely bodies,
With bright blue-starred eyes,
With pure crystal teeth,
With thin red lips.

Good they are at man-slaying,
Melodious in the ale house,
Masterly at making songs,
Skilled at playing fidchell.106

While red is commonly associated with the male members of of the daoine sìth, as well as being a common colour for men to have worn in the Hebrides, in some parts of Ireland, Scotland and Man it was (and still can be) tabu to wear green – or at least certain shades of it – for it is considered to be an Otherworldly colour; wearing green might attract unwanted attention, or it is unlucky, or else it is said that the daoine sìth simply do not like mortals wearing their favourite colour.107 Even today in Ireland, some folk avoid buying green cars because of the unlucky associations.108

There are many different types of fairy, the daoine sìth being the most coherent and cohesively formed of them. They have a hierarchy – are ruled by kings and queens – they farm crops and raise livestock (cattle, which they might even bring to market and sell to humans; or in the Highlands, red deer, which they are said to milk).109 All in all, they live much like we do – or did, in the medieval period. Those members of the daoine sìth who are seen to haunt certain areas in Ireland – Áine, Donn, Aoibheall, and so on – are seen to be the rulers over a host of sìthean.110 Mixed in amongst the ranks might be the souls of the dead, those who have been taken from the normal world for one reason or another, or they might be seen as slightly separate, with their own name – the sluagh sí, the host, forming a troupe of the Otherworldly dead. More often than not, though, daoine sìth like this are seen as both having had roles as tutelary and ancestral deities, and are usually seen to be benevolent (or at least relatively neutral) unless disrespected or angered.

In Scotland, there is the idea of the seelie and unseelie courts. The seelie (from the Gaelic sellig, ‘blessed’) are those of a more benevolent nature; the unseelie are those of a cruel and malicious outlook.111 As in Ireland, the concept of the daoine sìth is relatively localised – they are associated with certain areas of the landscape – but more often than not there is not so much the concept of a local ruler of the daoine sìth, for a particular area, than there is the idea of a fairy queen for all of the daoine sìth in Scotland. She is the Queen of Elphame, usually known as Nevin (or variations thereof) – and the name is clearly linked with the Irish Nemain.112 The Cailleach is often referred to as a fairy woman and is also quite widespread, but on a local level there aren’t as many local names preserved in the Scottish landscape as there are in Ireland.

In addition to the ranks of the daoine sìth there are other kinds of fairy as well. Some are similar to the daoine sìth, but appear to operate alone, rather than as part of a wider group – like the bean sí, the gruagach or glaistig. Other types appear as small, tiny folk – like the Irish luprachán (or luchorpan, ‘little body’113 – better known as the leprechaun), the ‘fairy shoemaker,’114 or the Scottish version of the brownie, the brunaidh. Or else they are huge ogres like the Manx buggane, or appear deformed in some way like the Scottish fachan (also known as the direach ghlinn eiti), which is described as one-eyed, one-legged, and having one arm coming out of its chest.115 Others still are not human or human-ish in form at all, but appear as Otherworldly animals (or usually appear in animal form, but can take on a human appearance) – the each uisge/each uisce, the water bull, kelpies, selkies, the púca.

Some of these beings – the gruagach, for example – bear clear evidence of having evolved from deities, or tutelary ancestors. In most cases, their origins seem to be outside of Christian doctrine, and so a pre-Christian one is a reasonable explanation.116 It should also be noted that especially in the case of Scottish fairy beings, not all are necessarily Celtic in origin, given the amount of influence from the Scandinavian areas in particular – the trows of Orkney, the brunaidh, selkies all have clear origins, or influences from elsewhere at the least. Nonetheless, much of the lore can tell us a lot about belief and practice.

For the glaistig and the gruagach in Scotland there is quite a large amount of overlap between the two according to the more recent sources like John Gregorson Campbell and Donald MacKenzie, and they are sometimes conflated due to their with long golden hair and associations with particular places or families.117 It does seem however, that they are indeed different beings, and that the glaistig is the more malevolent of the two by reputation. It would probably be fair to say, however, that what we are seeing in both cases are memories of local divinities as much as fairies.

The glaistig (or glaistic) might be described as a ‘water imp’, taking her name from the words glas or ‘water’ and stic or ‘imp’;118 or she might be said to be a tutelary being, with the first element of the term referring to her grey (glas) complexion.119 According to Gregorson Campbell she is a lone figure, not mixing with other members of the daoine sìth, and along with her grey skin, she is small and thin, with long golden-yellow hair that reaches almost to the ground; she is dressed most commonly in green, and as a rule her concern is looking after a particular house, family, or herd of cattle.120 In particular, she has a reputation for looking after the poorer folk – servants, or those who suffered neglect and meanness,121 but has a strong aversion to dogs.122 Carmichael, however, describes her as “a vicious creature, half woman, half goat, frequenting lonely lakes and rivers. She is much dreaded, and many stories are told of her evil deeds.”123

The gruagach haunts the fields and pastures, and is usually seen as female, with the exception of Skye where the gruagach there is described as male. Either way, the name ‘gruagach‘ comes from the long hair, whether referring to male or female – the term itself means ‘long-haired one.’ In terms of referring to men, it was common at one time for those who were of free or high rank in Scotland to have long hair, and on Skye he is referred to as being tall, wearing the dress of a ‘bygone period’ and having long yellow hair.124

The sole remit of the gruagach is in looking after the herds of cattle. If offerings of milk are faithfully made to her (or him, if we’re talking about Skye), she will happily look after the cattle at night and ensure that no harm comes to them. The milk should be given to to the clach na gruagaich, ‘the gruagach stone’, which is often described as a stone with a hole of depression in it. Carmichael tells us:

“In making the oblation the woman intoned a rune:

A ghruagach, a ghruagach,
Cum suas mo spreidhe,
Cum sios an Guaigean,
Cum uap an Geige.
Brownie, Brownie,
Uphold my herds,
Keep down the ‘Guaigean,’
Keep from them the ‘Geige’.”125

This was done by the dairymaid on a weekly basis according to Reverend MacQueen, writing in 1774, every Sunday,126 and failure to do so would lead to disaster. On Skye, where the gruagach was seen as male, he was often blamed for the unfortunate circumstances of many an unwed mother, up until the late seventeenth century, at least.127

That Carmichael translates gruagach as ‘brownie’ is probably no coincidence. Generally, brownies are seen as male, and their interest is in helping out around the home, but it seems that the female gruagach was often described as the female version of the brownie, broonie, or brunaidh as they were known in Gaelic.128 The brownie does not appear to be native to the Gaelic complex of belief, but is nonetheless now widely adopted and ingrained in tradition, especially in the Lowland areas.129

Whereas the gruagach looked after the herds, the brownie is responsible for doing all the housework that hasn’t got done during the day,130 but as much as it was an answer to a household’s prayers in that respect, he can also end up being thoroughly troublesome if he finds himself at a loose end. Either way, it was not the done thing to acknowledge their help, unless it is hoped that they might go away. Giving them an item of clothing was the best way to get rid of them.

In Man, the fynnoderee (or phynodderee) is one of the best known types of daoine sìth, and are seen to act as a type of brownie – helping or hindering around the house, but generally considered to be benevolent rather than malicious.131 There is also the buggane (elf, goblin), which is mischievous and mostly harmless like the púca;132 and there is the glashtyn or glashan, a water horse which is similar to the Scots kelpie or the each uisge (water horse – also found in Ireland).133

The water horse of Irish tradition – the each uisce – was one of the commonest types of fairy beast. They are associated with almost every body of water in Ireland, and have a fearsome reputation for malevolence. Usually they come out of the water and terrify passers-by, but sometimes they might try to get people to ride them – upon which the each uisce will take the rider straight into the water and drown them.134

In Scotland, the spelling is slightly different – each uisge – but it modus operandi is the same as in Ireland. In addition to enticing weary travellers onto its back, theeach uisge can also take on human form, and has a penchant for seducing beautiful young maidens who come to the shores alone to take in the scenery and indulge their senses in the scents of the blooming heather and other fragrant blossoms. In human form, the each uisge is the most beautiful man a girl has ever seen, and while she may ordinarily be virtuous, there is something about the each uisge that makes even the most innocent lass throw caution – and virtue – to the wind. It is only when, in the midst of their passionate embrace, the girl runs her fingers through her lovers’ hair that she finds it tangled with weeds or kelp. Those with enough common sense to know that something is wrong might look down to see that her beautiful lovers’ feet are not human at all, but horse hoofs, and if she is lucky she might be able to disentangle herself from his embrace and escape at full tilt away from him. Otherwise, he might be able to entice her onto his back and run her into the water, never to be seen again.135

There are also water cows and water bulls. At Loch Gur in Ireland there is a herd of white water cows said to come out of the waters, in order to graze in the fields nearby. Generally they cause little trouble, and might even allow themselves to be milked during times of famine; but the water bull usually has an altogether more dangerous reputation.136

Even so, these Otherworldly bulls – and horses137 – may sometimes come ashore and live amongst a herd for no apparent reason discernible to the farmer (though it might be presumed that they are a sort of gift from the local daoine sìth). This happened to a farmer whose cattle grazed along near the shore of Loch Derg in County Clare, when one day he saw a fine and magnificent bull (white, with red ears and black-tipped horns – signalling its Otherworldly nature) appear amongst the his herd. He saw it shaking off the water from the loch, and when the farmer’s own bull saw it, the bull made a move towards the interloper as if to challenge it. A glance and a huff from the Otherworldly bull, however, and the bull backed off immediately. The farmer decided to leave them all be, and everything settled down peacefully. In due course, the heifers gave birth to strange-looking calves – all golden-yellow heifers that turned out to be excellent milkers.

The local lord heard of this magnificent beast and pressured the farmer into selling it to him. At first the farmer refused, not wanting to let go of the bull, but eventually the lord offered him a field he’d had his eye on for a long time, and reluctantly he agreed to give the bull in exchange for the field. As soon as the deal was arranged, however, the Otherworldly bull vanished back into the loch and was never seen again. The farmer prospered with his golden-yellow heifers, but never did get the field.138

The púca is perhaps best known for pissing (or spitting) on fruit still left on bushes and trees at Samhainn, rendering them inedible, but also has a reputation for causing mischief with anyone who comes across them. The púca is said to haunt rocky glens, fields or calm river pools, and can take the form of a horse or dog (amongst other things). In horse form, the púca will try to entice lone travellers to climb on and go for a ride, at which point he will run the rider ragged across the countryside and then throw them off far from home, often in a boghole.139

Generally the púca is seen as relatively harmless, but often mischievous, and is used as a caution to children against going out after dark. The term púca sean duine (púca old fellow) is used to describe a grumpy old man, and the púca also lends its name to certain types of flowers and mushroom; the caise púca (cheese of the púca) is the name given to the puff ball fungus, while the cosa púca (the púca’s foot) is a general name for fungi that look most like mushrooms. The méaracán púca (the glove of the púca) is just one of the names given to the foxglove.140


Over the years, the body of lore pertaining to the daoine sìth has evolved – the gods and the daoine sìth have merged into one (almost) and inhabit the same sphere, with a remarkable amount of consistency between the way we see the gods operate in the tales compared to the way the daoine sìth are seen in the lore.141 Having never sat comfortably within a Christian framework, attempts have been made over the years to reconcile the existence and origins of the daoine sìth with it – thus we have the daoine sìth as fallen angels, neither good enough for heaven, nor bad enough for hell. Or else they are firmly within the remit of Satan’s work, doing his bidding, and so on… All this may not necessarily be relevant to a Gaelic Polytheistic perspective in practice, but nonetheless it is an important thing to remember in terms of how this idea may have influenced the lore, and the fact that it is something that has become deeply ingrained in how the daoine sìth are seen; it is all part of the continuum of belief.

In terms of influence, we might put the fact that the daoine sìth are seen to be most active on a Friday because the day has negative associations, due to the fact that Friday is the day that Jesus was crucified; likewise, in Scotland they are seen at their weakest on Thursdays because this day is associated with one of the greatest national saints of Scotland, St Columba.142 Both of these factors may have very little relevance to us as non-Christians, but nonetheless they were important considerations to the people of the Highlands and Islands especially, in how they went about their business.

Alongside all of this is the idea of the dead living amongst the daoine sìth, and here again is something that doesn’t fit entirely comfortably within a Christian context. They might be seen as living in a purgatory, a Gaelic imagining of what that might be; or else the idea may genuinely be a pre-Christian hangover, something that stubbornly held on over the millennia. Either way, as much as this lore sits rather uncomfortably within the Christian framework that we find it recorded, it is this same framework that has helped to keep it alive for so long.

For as long as the lore has been recorded by folklorists, it seems that it has always been seen in the past tense. Those who have written about it over the centuries have a tendency to remark on the creideamh sí as something that is dying out, fading away, and that the daoine sìth themselves are beings who were once a common sight in the landscape, but have since disappeared – died out or hidden away.143 The threat is keenly felt today, in the face of big business and the increasing applications of technology that are changing traditional life; farmers who use machines to milk their cattle, for example, might not give the first few drops of milk to the daoine sìth anymore, and yet on a more individual level there are still survivals. The decline in the Gaelic language can also be attributed to some of the lore being lost – not translated or perpetuated outside of the native languages – and yet over all it has survived over the centuries:

“In folklore, fairy and other supernatural beliefs, once shunned as absurdities or impossibilities, have survived the twin onslaught of authoritarian disapproval and Victorian artifice, to continue unabated, if constantly updated and remodified, ‘like elastic, stretching and thinning out rather than letting itself be severed completely.”

Whereas once the daoine sìth were seen as kidnapping and abducting people and especially children, or otherwise inflicting many kinds of illness, now we might (in most cases, at least) see those beliefs as a way of reconciling the fact that many people were lost to diseases and difficulties beyond the understanding and medical advancements of that age; others still might have met a more sinister fate, and the daoine sìth provided a convenient alibi.

And yet still, in spite of an increasingly rationalistic and scientific age, some people feel that there are some things, some uncertainties, that cannot be explained. It is through our own experience, intuition and interpretation that we come to conclude that there is still a place for the daoine sìth in this world; to be respected, to be honoured, and hopefully, to not cause too much mischief or harm to us and ours.

As Gaelic Polytheists, the daoine sìth can be seen as gods, spirits, or ancestors depending on who we’re dealing with; the daoine sìth are complex, and full of contradictions. Those we see as gods-made-fairy tend to be benevolent and beloved; in the lore, Áine in Ireland is described as “the best-hearted woman that ever lived,”144 and she looks after all of those who live in the shadow of her síd and honour her accordingly, and is also seen as an ancestress of certain families. Likewise the gruagach in Scotland will tend to the livestock faithfully if she is given her dues of milk each week.

Others may not be seen as divine, but rather as the daoine sìth proper, so to speak – the fairy men and women who seek to take a mortal lover, or a child, or get rid of a troublesome, moaning elderly fairy in place of a less troublesome elderly mortal…They powerful, but not as powerful as the gods. Those who end up amongst the daoine sìth are rarely ill-treated, and it is usually the loved ones that are left behind who suffer the loss the most.

Then still, there are those who are more akin to nature spirits, haunting certain localities such as lochs and glens. Some may be downright sinister, while some may simply be mischievous and occasionally troublesome to the unwary. The each uisge, for example, may entice weary travellers on its back and then try to plunge them into the loch, drowning them, while the púca will likewise entice an incautious fellow to ride with them and aim to do nothing more than to give the rider the fright of their life and inconvenience them by dropping them off far from their destination.

It is inadvisable to seek the daoine sìth out, and it is important to remember that there is good reason that so much lore has been recorded, and persists, that aims solely to protect against them, and those folk who might be favoured by them and given help in stealing butter, milk, or produce from others through witchcraft – saining the home, charms hung around the house and byre, charms hung on cattle or sown into children’s clothes, prayers said, and so on:

Gleidh an t-aosda agus t-òg, ar mnathan agus ar paisdean, ar sprèidh agus ar feudal, o chumhachd agus o cheannas nan sìthichean, agus o mhi-run gach droch-shùla.

Preserve the aged and the young, our wives and our children, our sheep and our cattle, from the power and dominion of the fairies and from the malicious effects of every evil eye.145

Regardless of their nature – divine, or not – the daoine sìth may favour some folk, but not everyone; it is not something that should be assumed, and traditionally it is through offerings that favour, or at least a treaty of non-interference, is agreed.146 On an individual level, they are generally happy to keep to themselves when treated with respect and given their due – offerings of the first drops of milk from the cow, the first drops of freshly fermented alcohol, butter, crops harvested in the field, and so on. But they are also easily offended – by stinginess, or people simply by getting in their way as they make their way along their ‘fairy paths’, with people either walking along them or building houses in their way, or by receiving offerings or gifts of thanks for favours that are above and beyond their due.

Especially in Ireland, many of the daoine sìth have rivalries against their neighbours, and so they are seen to be perpetually in battle against one another; in Ulster and Connacht, when one faction wins the crops in their locality are seen to be bountiful, but when they lose the rival faction take their tribute from the crops in the area, and the people suffer a poor harvest. Thus when Ulster has a good harvest, their fairy king is seen to be victorious, but when Connacht has the better harvest, their fairy king, Finnbheara, is the victor.147 Naturally, on one level this explains changing fortunes, but it could also show evidence of a pre-Christian hangover, of rivalries between local deities as an explanation for rivalries between local tribes.

It is said that they can travel through the air on the backs of horses, created magically from ragwort, and so they can take themselves off to exotic locations such as “London, Paris or Spain.”148 There is also plenty of lore that supports the idea that some of the daoine sìth travelled with the emigrants from Ireland and Scotland when they set out for the New World – parts of Canada and the U.S. preserve lore dealing with this especially, even following poor unfortunate souls who left their homeland in order to escape the attentions of the daoine sìth.149 This all suggests that regardless of where you are in the world, it is possible that you might sometimes encounter the daoine sìth – either by accident, or (perhaps) because of the fact that you are practising the creideamh sí.

In spite of the romanticism that surrounds them some avenues of modern paganism, it is important to remember that the daoine sìth are not to be trifled with – these are not beings to invoke in order to ‘work with’ them for spells and the like. The words of Crofton Croker would do well with being heeded:

“It is a very good thing not to be any way in dread of the fairies, for without doubt they have then less power over a person; but to make too free with them, or to disbelieve in them altogether, is as foolish a thing as man, woman, or child can do.”150


1 Ronald Black, in particular, has a good discussion about this in the introduction to The Gaelic Otherworld.
2 Ó Cáthasaigh, ‘The Semantics of Síd,’ in Éigse 17, 1977-79, p137.
3 Koch, Encyclopedia of Celtic Culture, 2006, p720-720; p1610.
4 Koch, Encyclopedia of Celtic Culture, 2006, p729.
5 Gregor, Notes of the Folk-Lore of the North-East of Scotland, 1881, p59.
6 Walsh, The Secret Commonwealth and the Fairy Belief Complex, 2002, p33-34; p92-93.
7 Walsh, The Secret Commonwealth and the Fairy Belief Complex, 2002, p93.
8 Walsh, The Secret Commonwealth and the Fairy Belief Complex, 2002, p33-34.
9 Gregor, Notes of the Folk-Lore of the North-East of Scotland, 1881, p59.
10 An exact pronunciation guide is difficult, but roughly: DOON-yuh SHEE. ‘People of peace’. I’ve chosen this form because it reflects my personal focus on Scottish practice, and is consistent with other Gaelic terms used throughout the website that also tend to be Gaelic where possible/appropriate.
11 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, pxxxii.
12 Yeats, Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, 1888, p1.
13 Evans-Wentz, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911, p75; p113.
14 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, pxxv, quoting Carleton, 1854, p72-73; see also McCone, Pagan Past and Christian Present, 1990, p150 for a version told by Manannán.
15 Logan, The Old Gods: The Facts about Irish Fairies, 1981, p5.
16 Ó hÓgáin, The Lore of Ireland, 2006, p208; Grant, Highland Folk Ways, 1961, p137.
17 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, pxxv, quoting Carleton, 1854, p72-73.
18 Logan, The Old Gods: The Facts about Irish Fairies, 1981, p17.
19 Ó hÓgáin, The Lore of Ireland, 2006, p208.
20 Walsh, The Secret Commonwealth, 2002, p93.
21 Ó hÓgáin, The Lore of Ireland, 2006, p208.
22 Macalister, Lebor Gabála Érenn, 1941, p203. C.f p169.
23 Kirk also notes the idea, Walsh, The Secret Commonwealth, 2002, p43.
24 Evans-Wentz, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911, p40.
25 Ó hÓgáin, The Lore of Ireland, 2006, p179.
26 Evans-Wentz, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911, p75.
27 Evans-Wentz, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911, p90.
28 Evans-Wentz, The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911, p74-75.
29 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, pxxxii.
30 Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica Vol II, 1900, p357.
31 Koch, Encyclopedia of Celtic Culture, 2006, p728.
32 McNeill, The Silver Bough Vol I, 1957, p116.
33 Logan, The Old Gods: The Facts about Irish Fairies, 1981, p18.
34 Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica Vol II, 1900, p357-358.
35 “To the Christian the burial of bodies with their faces to the East is the outcome of the belief not only of the resurrection of the body, but also that from the East shall come the final summons to Judgment. Hence in Wales the east wind is known as the “wind of the dead man’s feet.”” Puckle, Funeral Customs, 1926.
36 Evans, Irish Folk Ways, 1957, p44.
37 Henderson and Cowan, Scottish Fairy Belief, 2001, p19.
38 Henderson and Cowan, Scottish Fairy Belief, 2001, p21.
39 Henderson and Cowan, Scottish Fairy Belief, 2001, p21-22.
40 See for example, Kathryn Forsyth’s Pictish Language.
41 Koch, Encyclopedia of Celtic Culture, 2006, p728.
42 Henderson and Cowan, Scottish Fairy Belief, 2001, p19.
43 Ó Cathasaigh, “The Semantics of ‘Síd,’” in Éigse 17 (1977-79), p137.
44 Koch, Encyclopedia of Celtic Culture, 2006, p1404.
45 Quoted from Carey, ‘The Otherworld in Irish Tradition,’ in Wooding (Ed.), The otherworld voyage in early Irish literature, 2000, p41. Pdf link.
46 Echtra Nerai. Pdf link.
47 Walsh, The Secret Commonwealth and the Fairy Belief Complex, 2002, p95.
48 Ó Cathasaigh, “The Semantics of ‘Síd,’” in Éigse 17 (1977-79), p140.
49 As Ó Cathasaigh notes: “The key to the semantics of síd is to be found in the central role of the king in Irish political ideology…The king is the centre of the cosmos: the distinguishing characteristic of the just and righteous king is called fír flathemon (lit., ‘prince’s truth’), and when the king is possessed of this all is right with his world…Two points are relevant to the present discussion: first, that legitimate kingship has its source in the Otherworld, and, secondly, that the reign of the righteous king is marked by peace (as well as plenty) in the land. That is as much as to say that 1. síd denotes the source of fír flathemon, and 2 síd its symptom. Ó Cathasaigh, “The Semantics of ‘Síd,’” in Éigse 17 (1977-79), p140.
50 Cath Maige Mucrama.
51 Carey, ‘The Otherworld in Irish Tradition,’ in Wooding (Ed.), The otherworld voyage in early Irish literature, 2000, p41. Pdf link. See also Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Folk Custom and Belief, 1967, p91-92; Henderson and Cowan, Scottish Fairy Belief, 2001, p211; Evans, Irish Folk Ways, 1957, p297; Ó hÓgáin, The Lore of Ireland, 2006, p211.
52 Danaher, Irish Customs and Beliefs, 1964, p95.
53 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Folk Custom and Belief, 1967, p91-92.
54 Wood-Martin, Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland Volume I, 1902, p372.
55 Monaghan, The Red-Haired Girl From the Bog, 2003, p101.
56 Walsh, The Secret Commonwealth, 2002, p43.
57 Wilde, Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland, 1887, ‘The Fairy Race’.
58 Ó Giolláin, ‘The Fairy Belief and Official Religion’, in Narváez (Ed.), The Good People: New Fairylore Essays, 1997, p199-200.
59 Evans, Irish Folk Ways, 1957, p297; Danaher, Irish Customs and Beliefs, 1964, p95.
60 Lucas, The Sacred Trees of Ireland, p47.
61 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Folk Custom and Belief, 1967, p70; p89-90; McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume I, 1957, p57; p108-109; Walsh, The Secret Commonwealth, 2002, p35.
62 Evans, Irish Folk Ways, 1957, p277.
63 Evans-Wentz, The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911, p91-92.
64 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p10.
65 Ó hÓgáin, The Lore of Ireland, 2006, p208-209.
66 Evans-Wentz, The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911, p108.
67 Danaher, Irish Customs and Beliefs, 1964, p94.
68 Evans, Irish Folk Ways, 1957, p305-306; Ó hÓgáin, The Lore of Ireland, 2006, p211.
69 Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica Volume II, 1900, p356; Logan, The Old Gods: The Truth about Irish Fairies, 1981, p66.
70 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p26.
71 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p25.
72 Koch, Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, 2006, p729. Cf immrama.
73 Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica Volume II, 1900, p356; Gregor, Notes of the Folklore of the North-East of Scotland, 1881, p63.
74 Gregor, Notes of the Folklore of the North-East of Scotland, 1881, p63. See also Katherine Briggs, The fairies in tradition and literature, 1967 for plenty of examples.
75 Henderson and Cowan, Scottish Fairy Belief, 2001, p94.
76 See Birth and Baptism.
77 Ó hÓgáin, The Lore of Ireland, 2006, p209.
78 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Folk Custom and Belief, 1967, p92.
79 Wilde, Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland, 1887. Henderson and Cowan, Scottish Fairy Belief, 2001, p97.
80 Yeats, Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, 1888, p47.
81 Henderson and Cowan, Scottish Fairy Belief, 2001, p99.
82 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, plxxviii; Koch, Encyclopedia of Celtic Culture, 2006, p729.
83 Fairweather, Highland Heritage, 1984, p35.
84 Ó hÓgáin, The Lore of Ireland, 2006, p209.
85 Fairweather, Highland Heritage, 1984, p35.
86 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Folk Custom and Belief, 1967, p48.
87 Or indeed more sinister fates for a person – abuse, kidnap, murder, and so on could all be blamed on the daoine sìth. Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, pxxxv; plxxviii.
88 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Folk Custom and Belief, 1967, p90.
89 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Folk Custom and Belief, 1967, p24.
90 Ó hÓgáin, The Lore of Ireland, 2006, p211.
91 Logan, The Old Gods: The Truth about Irish Fairies, 1981, p97.
92 Koch, Encyclopedia of Celtic Culture, 2006, p729.
93 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Folk Custom and Belief, 1967, p96.
94 Evans-Wentz, The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911, p38.
95 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Folk Custom and Belief, 1967, p90-91.
96 Evans-Wentz, The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911, p41.
97 Gregor, Notes on the Folk-Lore of the North-East of Scotland, 1881, p63.
98 Henderson and Cowan, Scottish Fairy Belief, 2001, p83-84.
99 Ó hÓgáin, The Lore of Ireland, 2006, p210.
100 The manuscript is known as the Book of Hy Brasil, and is kept at the Royal Irish Academy. ‘Hy Brasil’ is another name for the Otherworld. Logan, The Old Gods, 1981, p90-91.
101 Henderson and Cowan, Scottish Fairy Belief, 2001, p106; p182.
102 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume I, 1957, p100; Ó hÓgáin, The Lore of Ireland, 2006, p210.
103 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Folk Custom and Belief, 1967, p94.
104 Fairweather, Highland Heritage, 1984, p35.
105 Ó hÓgáin, The Lore of Ireland, 2006, p210; Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p7.
106 Logan, The Old Gods: The Truth about Irish Fairies, 1981, p12.
107 Fairweather, Highland Heritage, 1984, p35.
108 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p7; Koch, Encyclopedia of Celtic Culture, 2006, p730.
109 Ó hÓgáin, The Lore of Ireland, 2006, p210; McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume I, 1957, p108.
110 Ó Giolláin, ‘The Fairy Belief and Official Religion’, in Narváez (Ed.), The Good People: New Fairylore Essays, 1997, p202.
111 Henderson and Cowan, Scottish Fairy Belief, 2001, p14.
112 Henderson and Cowan, Scottish Fairy Belief, 2001, p18.
113 Logan, The Old Gods: The Truth about Irish Fairies, 1981, p68.
114 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Folk Custom and Belief, 1967, p89.
115 Ross, Folklore of the Scottish Highlands, 2000, p96-97.
116 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, plxxxvii.
117 MacKenzie, Scottish Folk-Lore and Folk Life, 1935, p179; Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p99.
118 Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica Volume II, 1900, p302-303.
119 Fairweather, Highland Heritage, 1984, p37.
120 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p82; p87.
121 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p85.
122 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p102.
123 Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica Volume II, 1900, p302-303.
124 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p98-99.
125 Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica Volume II, 1900, p306.
126 MacQueen, ‘Of the Gruagich’ in Pennant, 1774, p759.
127 MacQueen, ‘Of the Gruagich’ in Pennant, 1774, p758.
128 Henderson and Cowan, Scottish Fairy Belief, 2001, p15.
129 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p100.
130 Henderson and Cowan, Scottish Fairy Belief, 2001, p15.
131 Evans-Wentz, The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911, p120; Koch, Encyclopedia of Celtic Culture, 2006, p730.
132 Logan, The Old Gods: The Truth about Irish Fairies, 1981, p68.
133 Koch, Encyclopedia of Celtic Culture, 2006, p730.
134 Danaher, Irish Customs and Beliefs, 1964, p100.
135 Ross, Folklore of the Scottish Highlands, 2000, p95-96.
136 Danaher, Irish Customs and Beliefs, 1964, p101; Ross, Folklore of the Scottish Highlands, 2000, p95.
137 Logan, The Old Gods: The Truth about Irish Fairies, 1981, p131.
138 Logan, The Old Gods: The Truth about Irish Fairies, 1981, p128.
139 Danaher, Irish Customs and Beliefs, 1964, p95.
140 Logan, The Old Gods: The Truth about Irish Fairies, 1981, p63-64.
141 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, pxxxii.
142 Ross, Folklore of the Scottish Highlands, 2000, p16.
143 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p1.
144 Ó Duinn, Where Three Streams Meet: Celtic Spirituality, 2002, p64.
145 MacKenzie, Scottish Folk-Lore and Folk Life, 1935, p231.
146 See the CR FAQ on Outsiders, for example. This works for native and non-native beings. NicDhàna et al, The CR FAQ, 2007, p91.
147 Logan, The Old Gods: The Truth about Irish Fairies, 1981, p30-31.
148 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Folk Custom and Belief, 1967, p89-90.
149 See, for example, Narváez (Ed.), The Good People: New Fairylore Essays, 1997.
150 Crofton Croker, Fairy Legends and Traditions, 1825.