“Would you not like to be a fairy?…and live with me in this garden where the sun never ceases to shine and where it is summer all the year?”
Queen of the Fairies offering to make a girl a fairy
Although the above quote comes from a Greek, rather than a Celtic Tale the offer and opportunity for the human soul to become a fairy was a common belief throughout all of Eurasia. Even the breeze which stirs the trees causing the leaves to rustle and the wood to creak was once believed to be the sounds of ancestral spirits speaking to us, for it was in the trees, rocks, rivers and waterways that the human soul resided. The Celts believed that the souls of the dead would go into trees planted near their graves. The Altaic peoples who gave the Celts their words for horse among things, believed that the human soul became the spirits of the lands, rocks or trees when they passed on and that these spirits could later be reincarnated as humans. Thus we see people’s souls become nature spirits(fairies) and that these nature fairies become human souls.
It is more than nature spirits that human souls can become when they pass on, however, for the “Faces of friends and relatives, long since doomed to the battle trench or the deep sea, have been recognized by those who dared to gaze on the fairy march. The maid has seen her lost lover, and the mother her stolen child, and the courage to plan and achieve their deliverance has been possessed by, at least, one border maiden.” In other words the souls of the dead continue to live on among the fairies. The banshee were the souls of ancestors which appeared as beautiful maidens in order to help their family, as they were originally as much about blessing infants and giving advice as they were about giving warnings and meeting the spirits of those who had died. “There is a legend told of the Macleod family: (that) Soon after the heir of the Macleods was born, a beautiful woman in wonderful raiment, who was a fairy woman or banshee, (there were joyous as well as mourning banshees), appeared at the castle and went directly to the babe’s cradle. She took up the babe and chanted over it a series of verses, and each verse had its own melody. The verses foretold the future manhood of the young child and acted as a protective charm over its life. Then she put the babe back into its cradle and, going out, disappeared across the moorlands.” In another tale, the banshee of Grants Meg Moulach would stand beside the head of the family and advise them on playing chess. (F.S. Wilde, 1887)
So although people tend to associated banshees with death, they are really about life, for they are the souls of those who love a family so much that they continue to give it aid and inspiration. It was their place to inspire poets and artists, thus ancient Celts believed that such skills were gifts of the fairies, gifts of one’s ancestors. Thus when Christians claimed that fairies were the souls of the unbaptized dead it may have been true in part that many fairies were indeed those who had passed on in centuries passed.
What this means is that at least one human soul, if indeed the ancient Celts believed that humans have multiple souls (a point which, I argued here )is the same soul which resides in fairies. This seems even more likely when one considers that there are tales of fairies becoming human when they live among humans and eat human food for long enough. Further there are many Celtic tales of a person bringing a loved one back from the fairy court. In other words the Celts believed that the door could under special circumstances, that fairy and human souls were interrelated enough that one could become another.
Nukiuk is a folklorist and artist who is using Eurasia’s folk tales and beliefs to better understand the ancient folk religions. You can read more about his thoughts on tree fairies at http://fairies.zeluna.net/2011/11/tree-spirits-are-fairies.html. The References for this and other articles are at http://fairies.zeluna.net/p/resources.html.