Cool grey and green lichen covered stones surround the small pool which reflects the sky above, a small slash disturbs the crystal clear waters and a coin drifts down to join hundreds of others, each representing some wish, each a desire. For hundreds, even thousands of years people have cast votives into this well as an exchange to aid in their hopes. Such wells dot the Celtic landscape, and are perhaps some of the last remnants of the first religion of the Celtic lands.
Down the hill a ways the river bends and flowing water saturates the ground allowing the trees to grow a little thicker as they seem to stretch just a little ways out into the farms. Once these trees would have been decorated with cloth in the spring, offerings for the fairies of the water which lived within the river. For water fairies were the most important of all fairies among the Celts according to Briggs. Such fairies granted wishes and fertility, they aided in the growth of crops and kept people safe for thousands of years. When Julius Caesar was planning to invade the Celts he received reports that they primarily worshipped water fairies. Further among the Irish Danu, the mother goddess of the Tuatha De Dannan was associated with rivers. Among the Gauls Deo Matrona who was associated with the river Marne was the “Mother Goddess.”
It should come as no surprise then that Arthur’s greatest sword, the one which would not only help him keep his kingdom in tact but which also would not break was given to him by a water fairy. It was after all the water fairies which were people’s protection and comfort. In one tale a woman is forced to flee her home as she was tormented by horned witches. Eventually she collapses, weeping beside a well. It is here by the water that a voice speaks to her giving her the knowledge of how to rid her home of her tormentors. Such stories are typical of water fairies, which, being shy beings tend to avoid being seen by humans. Even so they do sometimes appear, most often in the form of an animal.
The Grimm Brother’s fairy tale of “Little Brier Rose” begins with a Queen and King who want a child and water fairy who grants them that wish.
“One day while the queen was sitting in her bath, a crab crept out of the water onto the ground and said, “Your wish will soon be fulfilled, and you will bring a daughter into the world.” And that is what happened.”
There are two pieces of knowledge we gain from the water fairy in the tale of “Little Brier Rose;” the first is that such fairies often take on animal form. In the Scottish fairy tale of “Gold-Tree and Silver-Tree” the water fairy which acts as an oracle appears as a trout. Other fee’s and water fairies appear in the form of giant eels. As I argued in “Water Spirits as Fairies” the tales of the Loch Ness Monster likely come from the tales of water fairies in eel/serpent form. Indeed the first written encounter with one of these creatures is of a Christian Missionary trying to banish it, not as a physical being but as a spiritual one.
The continuation of this tradition in “Brier Rose” with the appearance of the crab shows us that water fairies were important to people up into the 19th Century. Indeed in the other version of Sleeping Beauty the King and Queen actively go out to the sacred wells in order to gain a child.
The fact that the water fairy gave the King and Queen of “Sleeping Beauty” a child is interesting because water fairies can to some extent see the future. In other words the water fairy in the story of sleeping beauty was the only active being in the story, she was the one who set the story into motion, so it was she who could be said to be the author of the tale. The water fairy was most likely assigned this role in the story not just because she was the provider of fertility, but because fairies are lovers of art and beauty. Sometimes this means that humans, and the story of humanity are their art.
There are a few important things to bear in mind about water fairies, first is that they are lovers of the journey of the state betwixt and between one and another. In one tale a Welsh farmer falls in love with a water fairy and offers her some cooked bread but she claims it’s too hard, so he offers her some dough and she says it’s not done enough so he offers her some half cooked bread and she accepts this gift.
One must keep this in mind both when giving gifts too and receiving wisdom from water fairies, because while they seek to aid humans they never give a full answer, the picture they give humans is unclear so that the humans will have to take the journey on their own. It is only through the journey after all that a person is able to gain true knowledge and appreciation. This is the realm of water fairies to provide both knowledge and fertility.
As with all things done by the fairy in Celtic tradition continuing to work with water fairies wasn’t always so simple. They are after all enigmatic creatures, for they will providing water to drink and aid in the growing of fields but will also bring floods. This is why people worked so hard to develop and maintain a relationship with water fairies. Often travelling in procession every spring to the sacred waters, singing and praising it. Further they offered the water fairies gifts, most often of cloth but also of more valuable goods, for a relationship with water fairies as with all fairies is one built upon a bond which humans must foster.
Nukiuk is a folklorist who has been studying Eurasia’s folk religions and fairies, you can learn more about this at http://zeluna.net/.
To see the references for this article visit http://fairies.zeluna.net/p/resources.html.