Fairies, Good Neighbors, Little Folk…the list is endless for the mysterious beings who share the world with us. Indeed, the spirits are an intricate web of beings we don’t necessarily understand well. This article is about my own experiences with spirits and some of the things I’ve learned on the way.
If you’re new to interacting with the spirits, I suggest you read a book about them, or at least a few wikipedia articles. I personally recommend books by Morgan Daimler and Claude Lecouteux. Even with reading, you may not feel comfortable approaching these beings.
I have had several unlucky run-ins with the Good Neighbors. In Celtic lore, the fairies do not like being called fairies, they like being called Good Neighbors. At one point I called them “**cking fairies” before going on a walk with my dog. I found the front door literally would not close and I couldn’t even take that walk until my boyfriend struggled to slam the door shut. There was something off with the door hinges for another day until I left a tray of butter outside and apologized. The door has worked ever since.
Another time, I lost my apartment keys and my phone while playing with my dog at the beach. (Goodness knows, most of the exercise I get is because of my dog.) I nervously started to ask the fairies to help me find my stuff or give it back to me. My roommates and I found my phone, but not my keys. Like the stories say, the Good Neighbors like shiny things.
In any case, if you are here and reading this, I assume I don’t really need to convince you about the existence of the spirits. Without further ado, let me describe how I actually built a relationship with my own local spirits.
A Summer of Fairies
Last year, there was a tree on my block that had all sorts of plants and sapling branches around it. It looked different from the other three trees on my block and I couldn’t help but notice it every day. It felt magical. While trying to learn more about the spirits and developing a practice with them, I decided that I would honor them weekly at this ‘fairy tree.’
Every weekend, from Beltaine to Samhain (May 1 to November 1), I spent some time picking up trash on my block, especially around the tree, saying a little something to the fairies at the tree, and giving a full water bottle’s worth of water to the fairy tree. It took about twenty minutes every week. Occasionally, I would bring my runes out to see if they were happy with my work, and it seemed they were.
This is really all it was. I didn’t feel the need to light candles in the dead of night or use a pendulum or give elaborate offerings. Certainly you can if you want — and depending on what spirit you’re interacting with, they may want you to do that. But I simply felt something at that tree and I was honoring the beings there.
For a while, I figured the beings at my fairy tree were ‘fairies.’ But as I did more research on the spirits more generally, I started to wonder at the nature of the spirits, including fairies, and whether the being at my fairy tree were actually fairies.
How to Tell if a Fairy is a Fairy
I realize this title is silly, but I’m posing a serious question. If you look around the internet, there is little agreement among pagans as far as “spirits” go. These issues revolve around three interrelated sub-topics:
- Can or how do spirits travel around the globe?
- How many types of spirits are there?
- What categories of spirits exist?
The first issue comes from basic geography. Must Irish fairies remain in Ireland? Are spirits stuck to a certain locale? Can a Slavic domovoy live in Ireland or North America? Why couldn’t they?
The second issue is related to the first. Much like the discussions between “hard” and “soft” polytheists, pagans seem to disagree about how many types of spirits there are. I consider Norse elves and Irish fairies to possibly be the same entities called something different by different cultures. Others would disagree. Alternately, some people think Irish leprechauns, Cornish piskies, and Scottish brownies are basically the same. I don’t believe so because I consider brownies to be a different category of spirit. Essentially, what are the distinctions between spirits across cultures? Where do we draw the line?
The difference between brownies and leprechauns, to myself and other, is that they’re different categories. Brownies are household spirits, while I consider leprechauns in the same blurry category as imps, klabautermann, and gnomes. I’m not saying these categories are perfect or well-defined in our community. However, accounts of different types of spirits show several general categories. Do the live on a home or farm? Do they live underground? Do they pull pranks or help humans? The larger patterns could help us group certain kinds of spirits together.
This is just a short explanation of the distinctions and disagreements I have seen through online forums, articles, books, and discussions with other pagans. I have mentioned my own biases, but these discussions are larger than my personal musings. And I plan to write more articles in future about the spirits and the issues surrounding them in modern paganism.
However, there is one more thing to consider when it comes to the spirits that I don’t see very often discussed. Many pagans focus on European forms of paganism, but cultures all over the world have their own spirits. From Japanese Shinto, to Nigerian ethnocultural beliefs, to indigenous American folklore, we can find examples of spirits globally. So while you may practice Celtic paganism, you’re not necessarily going to find and interact with an Irish fairy.
For the beginner just dipping their feet into this part of our religion, I offer this advice: Be respectful to any spirit you interact with, set solid boundaries if it asks anything of you, and learn over time what it likes and wants. As you learn, you can do some research to figure out what you may be dealing with.
Back to my Fairy Tree
I knew that the spirits I was working with were nature spirits of some kind. I felt from the beginning that they either lived at this tree specifically, or at least spent a lot of time there. And, through my runes, I believed they were happy with my offerings, which were: regularly cleaning up the trash within ten feet of the tree and regularly giving lots of clean water.
When I looked more into fairies specifically, I found several things:
- They like offerings of cream or butter.
- Pagans nowadays have a shared gnosis that the fairies like chocolate as well.
- Fairies like to steal shiny objects.
- They reportedly wander and wear old-fashioned human clothes
- The Good Neighbors are easily insulted.
- They often prank people or tempt humans to stay in fairyland.
There wasn’t a single thing that seemed similar to the beings I worked with and the fairies. I stopped calling them fairies altogether, and I didn’t pick up another Irish term like the Good Neighbors. I just called them spirits, and they seemed perfectly fine with that.
As the summer went on, I came across a splendid discovery while picking up trash by the apartment wall: a shiny conch shell. The shell was under a thin layer of dirt that I moved away while picking up something. I wondered if it was a gift from the spirits, but I also didn’t want to take it in case it wasn’t a gift.
A conundrum indeed. I decided to cover it up. When I went to give my offering of water at the tree, I said I found this conch shell, but wasn’t sure if it was a present or not. I thanked the spirits for letting me find such a pretty thing, but I would not take it unless I found it by happenstance a second time.
I started to avoid the spot where I found the shell. I only went to that area in front of the building if there was trash there, and I did my best not to push the dirt around. For reference, the space in front of this particular building is roughly twenty or more feet long and about five feet wide. After a few weeks, I figured the shell wasn’t a gift after all.
Then I found it again. It was a few feet away from where I thought I originally found it, under a thin layer of dirt. I was so happy I went back to my apartment to fill up a second water bottle as a thank you offering. The shell now stands on my altar.
The shell I found.
While the shell is shiny, and possibly originated from a pet store, I couldn’t help but feel these spirits were land spirits. My reasoning is:
- Out of four trees on my block, only one had young plant growth at its base.
- My offerings were cleaning the land and giving fresh water.
- The gifted shell is interesting as I live ten minutes from the ocean, ie a coastal landscape.
In all likelihood, the spirits I worked with are unknown to Indo-European traditions. They have probably been on this land for far longer than the United States has been a country, and even longer still. I’m sure the Lenape or Canarsie had names for these spirits, but so far I’ve struggled to find good information on the subject.
The Spirits of YOUR Land
Pagans in the US need to start thinking about the indigenous peoples who lived here before us. And pagans elsewhere in the world need to do the same. These indigenous cultures interacted with the local spirits for a very long time, and they have as great a wealth of knowledge as the Irish do of fairies. We just need to start asking the right questions and reading the right resources.
I know many pagans want to get as deep into their hearth cultures as I do. However, we can’t just assume that a spirit we interact with is a spirit from the culture of our specific tradition just because we want it to be. There are certain polytheist and animist traditions, like Shinto, that believes there are an uncountable number of spirits. Who are we to say otherwise?
While I do believe I have had interactions with fairy-like beings, I also know that the spirits at my fairy tree were not the Good Neighbors. I am open to listening and learning from spirits I interact with, assuming as little as I possible. I hope you do the same.
The last weekend of that summer, I gave the spirits at my tree an offering, I told them it would be my last. I told them since the winter was approaching, I figured they would no longer be present at the tree. I took runes again, and it seemed to be ok that I was giving my last offering.
Unfortunately, this spring the landlord of the apartment building next to the tree ‘cleaned up’ their space and cut away every bit of plant life. The magic is gone from that tree, but I see it pop up in other places when I go for walks.
Did these spirits go away, hide, or hibernate when winter came? Did others flourish in the cold months? Should I have still given offerings to my fairy tree, even after I felt the spirits leave it? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. But I’m learning the best I can. And, really, that’s all we can do. I hope my own experience and musings have been helpful and insightful to you.