The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Sidhe (pronounced shee) is the Gaelic word commonly translated as “fairy.” “Fairy folk” is daoine sidhe or deenee shee.
Sidhe is also the Gaelic word for barrow or tumulus; ancient burial mounds, long grown over with grass and sometimes filled with treasure. Many fairy-sidhe reside within the barrowsidhe. Whether these spirits received their name from the barrows, whether the name is a euphemism for the spirits—referring to them by their address (in the way that Djinn are sometimes referred to as “Down There”)—or whether the double-word is meant to imply deeper spiritual traditions is now unknown.
Many consider sidhe the true and only “fairy folk.” Various explanations are offered:
They are the ancient Celtic gods: sidhe exist in Ireland, the Isle of Man, and the Scottish Highlands.
They are specifically the Pagan spirits of Ireland known as the Tuatha de Danann who, deprived of offerings and devotion, have withered. Tuatha de Danann means “Children of Danu” or “Dana” and refers to a legendary race that overthrew the indigenous inhabitants of Ireland. When the Tuatha de Danaan were, in turn, defeated by invading Milesians they took shelter in earth barrows (sidhe) and eventually came to be known by that name. Allegedly the Tuatha de Danann were once also known as Marcra shee (“fairy cavalcade”) or slooa-shee (“fairy host”).
An alternative Christian suggestion explains that the fairies are Fallen Angels—not quite bad enough to be damned to Hell but not good enough to be forgiven and saved.
They also may not have “come” from anywhere but may just be indigenous spirits who interact with people. Thus some consider the sidhe to be god-like, while others perceive them as demons caught on Earth, an important distinction when considering responses to the Fairy Faith. (See page 448; see also Fairy Witch.)
Another suggestion is that the sidhe were not spirits at all but aboriginal pre-Celtic people of the British Isles who possessed a powerful, mysterious, magical culture with a strong emphasis on herbalism and shamanism. They retreated to remote areas, including underground dwellings, in the face of aggressive invaders.
The sidhe are proud spirits who perceive themselves as worthy of veneration and intense respect: they accept (and perhaps expect!) small but consistent offerings, such as dishes of milk placed out overnight on the windowsill or doorstep.
There are male and female sidhe. They have an elaborately structured society that parallels that of humans and are considered to be trooping fairies, although some solitary spirits are also classified as sidhe. (See below, Solitary Sidhe.) Although some seem to bear a measure of hostility toward people, fairies often show considerable interest in human society and interaction with humans.
Sidhe stand accused of stealing humans, especially babies, children, midwives, and wetnurses. The milk they expect as an offering may not always have been bovine; legends tell of fairies accosting women and begging for a sip of human milk.
“Leprechaun” derives from the Gaelic leith brog “one shoemaker.” He is a cobbler, the sole professional sidhe; he is, however, always seen working on only one shoe rather than a pair, which may be a reference to shamanism. He works on shoes continually, with time off only for an occasional spree. The leprechaun is fabulously wealthy: he buries his treasure in pots and is reputedly a tremendous and not always nice practical joker. See CREATIVE ARTS: Dance: Step of Wu; DICTIONARY: Bagatella.
Their real passion, however, is for dancing and pleasure. Little industry exists among them: Irish fairies keep cows and sell or trade them at fairs. (Pre-Christian Irish deities were intrinsically involved with cattle.) The sole exception is the leprechaun who labors as a shoemaker. William Butler Yeats speculated that this was necessary as the rest of the sidhe constantly wore out their shoes dancing; he describes a woman who lived among the sidhe for seven years. When she returned home, her toes were gone: she had danced them right off her feet.
The sidhe have an intense relationship with people characterized by both love and hostility. Once upon a time, they were the subject of passionate human veneration: hidden within fairy tales and legends are suggestions of Pagan devotion and voluntary channeling of spirits, similar to modern spiritual traditions such as the African Diaspora faiths and the Zar cult. (See DICTIONARY: Candomblé, Santeria, Vodou, Zar.)