Mention a fairy, and the average American will picture a bird-sized human with butterfly wings and a penchant for mischief. However, This is a very modern take on a very old concept. Faeries (AKA fae) are found mostly in Celtic mythology and are a lot darker in nature than the modern interpretation.
Most fairies can be traced back to the Irish Áes Sídhe (People of the Mounds). These are said to be the survivors of a war between the native Celtic peoples (called the Tuatha Dé Danann) and invading Iberians called the Mil Espáine.
Much of this story has been traced to 11th century monks and may be propaganda, but there may also be some truth to it.
The Fae are traditionally spirits and thus may be connected to similar species. The following list talks about not only modern fairies and traditional fae, but also a few species that are related in some tenable way.
Note that true fairies are a European concept, so we won’t be talking about Oriental spirits such as the kitsune here. Note also, this is in no way an exhaustive list, as there are perhaps hundreds of fae species and individuals found in Celtic mythology.
Types of Fairies
The Alp-luachra (or joint-eater) is a faerie who takes the form of a newt and crawls down the throat of anyone foolish enough to fall asleep nearby.
They then consume part of the essence of any food their host consumes, leading to slow starvation unless the spirit can be forced to leave. It’s possible this legend is based on tapeworms and similar parasites.
2. (Woman of the Mound)
Usually an old woman standing one to four feet tall and wearing a shroud or cloak, the Baen Sídhe is a fairy who heralds a coming death. Her eyes are usually red from the tears she sheds for mortals and may be heard keening, wailing, or even singing with a beautiful but lamentful voice.
Many of the older and larger clans in both Ireland and Scotland have an ancestor who became the family Baen Sídhe. Family Baen Sídhe (or banshees, as they’re known in American interpretations) are also known to give warning cries when a member of the house is entering a dangerous situation.
There are three types of Baen Sídhe. The traditional form we’ve already noted. Baen-Nighe (washerwoman, also known as nigheag bheag a bhroin – little washer of sorrow) is often seen at fords washing the bloodied clothes of the doomed.
It’s said capturing one by getting between her and the water before she sees you and suckling upon her teat grands second sight. She will answer truthfully but must also be answered truthfully. The legends of King Arthur include a story of a Baen-Nighe.
The third type, Bean Chaointe (keening woman – Caoineadh in Irish) is almost always invisible and tends to mourn while hidden near running water, glens, and in the mountains. These usually lament those about to die in war and are said to have tried to warn Clan MacDonald the night before the Massacre of Glen Coe.
The Caointeach are the bean chaointe of Islay who will approach the door of those dying of illness in a green shawl and lament.
3. Cat Sìth and Cù-sìth
More common in Scotland than Ireland, these faeries appear as a black cat the size of a dog with a white spot on the chest and a shaggy dark green or white dog the size of a bull (respectively). Cat Sìth is attracted to warmth and must be distracted so it won’t cross over a corpse and steal its soul before the soul can be taken to the afterlife.
Meanwhile, Cù-sìth lives in the mountains and will either stalk its prey silently or give three sharp barks. Those who hear the barks have until the third to find safety or will die of fright. It is also known to kidnap nursing women to take back to the Sídhe where they’re forced to provide milk for Scottish Áes Sídhe.
These faerie children are well-feared throughout Europe. They’re swapped for human children and are often malformed or ill. The reasons for kidnapping a human child may vary, but the results are the same.
Thankfully, it’s possible to confuse a changeling or force the return of a child through certain methods.
5. Disney Fairy
American fairies are largely inspired by Disney, who depict fairies and pixies as tiny people with butterfly wings. Tinkerbell (a pixie) and Cinderella’s fairy godmother are two famous examples of the Disney fairy.
Disney fairies are the most popular version of a faerie in America and even traditional fae are often depicted as Disney-style fairies.
6. Dullahan (or Gan Ceann)
Dullahan are usually either horsemen or coachmen who carry their head in the crook of an arm. The head sports a ghastly grin and actively searches the surrounding land.
It’s said that where a Dullahan stops, a person will die. It may also speak the person’s name, draining the life from them instantly.
Coachmen versions use a human spine for a whip and the wagon or coach is made from human remains. A version of a coachman Dullahan appears in Darby O’Gill and the Little People while a horseman version appears in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
7. Fear Dearg (The Red Man)
These beings may be related to the Leipreachán. They have large, ratlike bodies and love pulling gruesome or evil pranks. They are thought to be connected to nightmares.
8. Gean-Cánach and Leannán Sídhe
These fae are the equivalent of incubi and succubi, respectively. Gean-Cánach love to seduce shepherdesses and milkmaids, making love to them and bringing ill fortune to any man who meet them, cursing them to have nothing but bad relationships with women.
Meanwhile, Leannán Sídhe tries to seduce men. If she fails, she’s doomed to serve them. However, if she succeeds, she feeds upon their life essence until they either die or find another male to take their place.
The doomed lover is granted great artistic inspiration, making the Leannán Sídhe’s curse worth bearing for many victims. It’s believed the Leannán Sídhe may be a creation of W. B. Yeats, although she may have been an adaptation of existing fae legend.
9. Gille Dubh
This fae hermit lived in the birch woods near Gairloch, Scotland during the 1800s. He was short with black hair, had a kindly but sometimes wild disposition, and wore homemade clothing woven from the leaves and moss of newarby trees.
Gille Dubh rescued a young boy named Jesse Macrae who’d gotten lost in the woods and the two became friends. He was often seen by children, whom he displayed affection for, until Clan Mackenzie organized a hunt to capture him.
He hasn’t been seen since, leading some to believe he was really just a human with Dwarfism.
Unlike the American Leprechaun, the Leipreachán is a group of half-fae, half evil spirit. They tend to be neutral and are shunned by both parent species.
Leipreachán love a good practical joke but also love to dance. As a result, many Leipreachán are skilled cobblers, as depicted in the popular folktale The Elf and the Shoemaker. Their frequent habit of cobbling have earned them the nickname leithbrágan (half-shoed)
Leipreachán are solitary fae around 3-4 feet tall, always male, and wear red coats. Depending on the region, they may also wear cocked hats, a frock coat, or other additional clothing.
The American stories of pots of gold are based on treasure-crocks – small containers with a family’s treasured possessions buried in ancient war times that have been located and appropriated by the Leipreachán.
There are a few sub-groups of Leipreachán. The Lúchorpáin are the oldest and best-known type, appearing in Echtra Fergus mac Léti where they try to drag the sleeping Fergus mac Léti into the sea.
Likewise, the Clúrachán are Leipreachán (or close kin) tend to inhabit pubs and breweries where they drink all they can hold and play pranks on staff. Other groups include the Cluricawne, Logheryman, and Lurigadawne.
These Celtic umbra are malevolent spirits who often travel in hosts that resemble a flock of east-bound birds. They attempt to enter the homes of the dying to steal their soul. They’re often seen during the Feast of the Dead on Hallowe’en.
Slaugh should be avoided, as they’re believed to be the spirits of those who were too evil for even the Underworld.
Perhaps the oldest form of spirit we can connect to the fae, Umbra are the spirits of the dead. In Greek, they’re known as σκιά, and in English they’re called shades. Umbra are generally mindless phantoms who await passage across the River Styx.
Those who cannot pay the fee are cursed to wander the banks for eternity. Odysseus and the Witch of Endor both summoned umbra that were former prophets who retained the gift of prophecy (Tiresias and Samuel, respectively).
The Oathbreakers in Lord of the Rings may also be considered umbra. While umbra bear little resemblance to true fae species, they are undoubtedly the inspiration for these later incarnations.