All art by Aubrey Vincent Beardsley
“The world is filled with invisible realities.”William Segal
One belief of those we call the Celts was that when a person dies in this world they are reborn in the Otherworld. Likewise, when a person dies in the Otherworld they are reborn in this one. There are of course other ideas around the soul separate to this, but it is interesting to view this concept in light of the strange cases of sightings of fairy funerals which turn up in later folklore. After all, it is often assumed that fairies, themselves, are immortal, so how do we reconcile these accounts to such a concept? Are they Christianised tales told to remind us that even fairies are subservient to God or are they older, authentic accounts simply dressed in the customs and beliefs of the day?
There is a metaphysical argument which posits that fairies envy human souls and consciousness; that we have the ability to transcend death, or move onto an afterlife, in a way that they never will. However, looking at indigenous traditions regarding similar beings which have not been Christianised, I do not think that this is true. There are also tantalising hints in fairy encounters of their ability to move between physical and non-physical realms, traverse time itself, and, indeed reincarnate into future lives. So, the idea of a fairy funeral is quite bizarre under these circumstances.
But the Otherworld inhabited by fairies was often associated with the land of the dead so maybe the contradiction of being both dead and alive is not as cut and dry as we might assume. The souls and spirits of dead relatives and ancestors were often said to be existing in the land of the fairies, and, indeed, there are mentions in folklore of a person existing in both places at the same time.
The theory that fairies may occupy the same time and space but remain unseen is also something which Irish folklore tells us in its own way. We are warned that the good people may be standing next to us or passing by and we will not know it. This may refer to their human-like characteristics making them indistinguishable from us as well as potentially hinting at some dimensional blind-spot existing parallel to our own world. We can also see a connection to the shamanic idea of soul-loss, and a further relationship to the many indigenous beliefs that the soul itself is comprised of multiple parts.
Within the tradition of Irish Cilini, unbaptized babies were buried in and around cairns and mounds so the fairies could look after them since they were not able to enter heaven.
So, again, we have this Otherworld existing which is separate to any moral or ‘good versus evil’ segregation.
We also have accounts about the beliefs of fairies regarding their own fate following death, such as this one from Robert Kirk in his Secret Commonwealth, written in 1691, describing how the fairies might ultimately end up in an afterlife. He writes, “They live much longer than we, yet die at last, or at least vanish from that state. For ‘tis one of their tenets that nothing perishes, but (as the sun and year) everything goes in a circle, lesser or greater, and is renewed and refreshed in its revolutions, as ‘tis another that every body in the creation moves (which is a sort of life), and that nothing moves, but has another animal moving on it, and so on, to the utmost minutest corpuscule that’s capable to be a receptacle of life.”
But did Kirk really have secret knowledge about fairies and their beliefs? Well, he also noted that fairies moved from one fairy mound to another, following the cycle of solstices and equinoxes, so this is an interesting link between fairies and ancestral guardians and spirits.
Many of our ancient structures are aligned to particular times of the year and frame the sun, moon and constellations yet these periods are indeed also associated with the movement of fairies and the dead, as well as easier passage to the Otherworld.
Writing in their paper, Small Gods, Small Demons: Remnants of an Archaic Fairy Cult in Central and South-Eastern Europe, Professor Éva Pócs, explains, “The typical fairy communication known from folklore accounts usually takes place in a characteristic space-time structure that is also a form typical of possession by the dead as it appears in this region.”
Kirk is also alluding the possibility of reincarnation, of course, as well as also a vast universal pantheism, with everything from the smallest cell to largest star all containing life of some sort. With this in mind, it seems the fairies have a knowledge of the universe which surpasses our own in terms of its size, but also the pathways which connect the microcosmic and the macrocosmic. As above, so below, as the ancient maxim tells us, or, in a more contemporary description, it seems they know of the principle of a holographic universe.
As I have commented on before, within Irish folklore, the bean sídhe seems to be aware of the histories of families she follows through time, but not just the past histories, she also seems to know what lies ahead for them. Also, the words of the fairy in the texts, The Knight of Staufenberg, as well as the Lay of Lanval describe how fairies can move outside the bounds of time, “Where I wish to be, I am.” and “Where I want to be, there I am too.” she tells us.
So, it seems we may have to consider our own thinking regarding death itself if we want to understand how fairies approach such a transition. Are they mocking us with their funerals and tropes, or might these encounters be the occasions of the passing of a particularly long-lived being? If they are travellers from outside of the bounds of time as we know it then perhaps there are further worlds within worlds and universes within universes into which they move. And is this also both a journey and destination which awaits us all?
David Halpin is a writer from Tallaght, now living on the Carlow/ Wicklow border. He has been writing about Irish Forteana and spirituality for over thirty years and has had his articles published in magazines and books throughout the world. David’s photographs of Ireland’s sacred sites have been published in journals and articles worldwide and in 2020 were included in An Taisce’s annual report on the Irish landscape. David is also a reviewer of esoteric writing and as well as publishing for The Occult Book Review, he also contributes regularly to newspapers, magazines and online publications. His articles have appeared in The Wild Hunt, New Dawn Magazine, Coire Ansic, and he is a regular contributor to Ancient Origins. David also runs the blog, Circle Stories, where he focuses his writing upon the topics of consciousness and folklore.