About the Fairy Faith

The Fairy Faith is behind much of the plot of The Never King and, indeed, its hero – Peter Quince – is an expert on it. But what exactly is it?

As Leslie Shepard has written, it’s an ancient folk-religion that believes in “an elusive ghostly order of life on the borderland of mind and matter” that usually survives “in the natural setting of wild and lonely places, rather than the skeptical bustle of towns and cities.” That borderland is peopled with “pixies, nixies, elves, fauns, brownies, dwarfs, leprechauns, and all of the other forms of the daoine sidhe (fairy people).”

Much of that description applies to ancient folk religions throughout the world. However, nowhere did the Fairy Faith play a more prominent role in people’s lives than in the Celtic lands of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man, and Brittany. For that reason, the term “Fairy Faith” is often restricted to the old folk religions of the Celts.

Of course, a belief in inhabitants of another dimension doesn’t add up to a religion. However, the Fairy Faith had all of the attributes of paganism that I’ve previously described. For example, the ancient Celts believed in a pantheon of both gods and goddesses who ruled over things like war and slaughter, fertility and agriculture, the underworld, thunder and lightning, rivers, mountains, horses and birds, and even apple trees. There were also gods and goddesses (mostly in Celtic myths) that were more like humans than deities. In that sense, they might be analogous to Christian saints or to today’s pop culture “superheroes.”

Given the fact that the Celtic Fairy Faith persisted from the Iron Age to the early twentieth century, you might be surprised to learn that we knew almost nothing about it until a little more than a hundred years ago. In part that was because – like most of the ancient folk religions – the Fairy Faith had no bible, prayer books, or other religious writings. It was simply passed down orally from one generation to the next. And perhaps more importantly, the old folk religions of the Celts weren’t considered a proper subject for scholarly research until the second half of the 19th century.

However, once that myopic view was corrected, many distinguished scholars attempted to make up for lost time. And unfortunately time was against them: the Celtic Fairy Faith was approaching extinction. It was succumbing to industrialization, urbanization, materialism, and “modernism.” Therefore, interested scholars began to pound the dirt paths of the remote rural villages that represented the last outposts of the Fairy Faith. They then listened and scribbled as the religion’s final practitioners (who were almost invariably old) recited ancient prayers, hymns, rituals, blessings, incantations, charms, runes, poems, myths, and stories. One example of the scholarly works that resulted is the Carmina Gadelica (the “Song of the Gaels”) which has a minor but provocative role in The Never King.

Lastly, I should point out that the Fairy Faith of the Celts as we know it today is almost certainly different from what it was when Celtic tribes from central Europe first crossed the Swiss Alps and settled in the British Isles. In part that’s because all religions evolve over time as do most other aspects of culture. But it’s also because conquerors (e.g. Romans and Saxons) as well as Christian missionaries brought their own religions to Celtic Britain and – as is typical of pagan religions – the Fairy Faith absorbed many of the new gods and rituals while it also retained most of its own. The Fois Anama – the “Soul Peace” prayer that Thistle sings in The Never King – is one example of this. It’s obviously Christian but it also has a faint pagan scent.

Of course the mixing of religions went in the other direction, too: Western Christianity absorbed and adapted rituals and beliefs from the folk religions that it “conquered.” Perhaps the most familiar examples of this involve Christmas. As I’m sure everyone realizes, the Yule log, the Christmas tree, and mistletoe aren’t mentioned in the Gospels. That’s because they were all derived from pagan religions including those of the Celts. (The British Druids venerated mistletoe because it grew on the oak trees that were sacred to them.) In fact, Christmas is celebrated in late December only because that’s when pagan Celts and Roman soldiers each held a festival to honor the sun. (It’s clear from Luke 2:8 that Jesus was born in the spring or the summer.) Thus, the Celtic Fairy Faith might be long gone, but its genes are preserved not only in neo-pagan faiths, but also in Christianity as it’s practiced today.


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