The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Witchcraft Trials Involving Fairies
Fairies may seem whimsical, sweet, and harmless today but demonstrating an interest in them was once considered witchcraft. Early in the witch-trial era, particularly in France, devotion to fairies and membership in fairy societies was among the forms of witchcraft that the Inquisition wished to prosecute and eliminate.
Bernardo Gui’s The Inquisitor’s Manual, published c.1324 and among the earliest witch-hunters’ manuals, instructs Inquisitors to question sorcerers, diviners, and necromancers “on the subject of fairies who bring good fortune, or it is said, who run around at night.”
Later on, as witchcraft became associated with diabolism and Satan-worship, the Inquisition was no longer interested in fairies unless devotion to them corresponded to what the Church considered standardized Satanic practice. Some of those charged with witchcraft disagreed: some, particularly in Hungary and Italy, acknowledged membership in fairy societies. Some even acknowledged these to be witchcraft, but denied that these practices had anything to do with Satan. Instead of worshipping Satan, these practitioners claimed devotion to beautiful, benevolent fairy queens who provided them with pleasure and material gifts, including food.
Trial transcripts are fascinating (from a distance!) because one observes that this talk of fairies and feminine rites (a lot of attention is paid to the fairies’ beautiful clothes, jewels, and coiffeurs) bores the male ecclesiastical Inquisitors: they want to talk about heresy, sacrilege, and the devil. Eventually, presumably after application of threats and torture, the witnesses’ discussion of fairies inevitably transforms into standardized descriptions of sacrilege (sex with the devil, ritual mutilation of Communion wafers, etc.). Because lengthy transcripts of the trials survive, this transformation may sometimes be observed.
On March 18, 1430, judges at Rouen asked Joan of Arc whether she knew anything about those who “went or traveled through the air with the fairies.” She denied first-hand knowledge but acknowledged being aware of this practice. She describes it as “sorcerie” and reported that it took place in her region on Thursdays.
Alison Peirsoun of Byrehill, Scotland, was visited by the ghost of a dead relative, William Sympsoune, who took her to see elves and fairies. Fairies taught Alison to prepare healing ointments so skillfully that when Patrick Adamson, Archbishop of St Andrews (c.1543—1591) was ill, he sent for her. She did, in fact, cure him. Having recovered, the Archbishop reconsidered the situation. He refused to pay Alison her fee, attributing her skills to the devil. She was charged with witchcraft. Alison was arrested and tortured. She subsequently confessed and accused many others of consorting with elves. She was burned at the stake.
In 1662, Isobel Gowdie of Scotland volunteered a confession of witchcraft. She claimed that she went to the Queen of the Fairies who gave her meat—more meat than she could possible eat. Transcripts indicate that Inquisitors became bored with Isobel’s story, her fairy-tale descriptions of the Queen of Fairy. They wanted to hear about the devil, and soon Isobel indeed changed her testimony. (Isobel Gowdie is among the mysteries of the Burning Times. It is unknown why she voluntarily confessed to witchcraft, nor what ultimately became of her.)
During a 1745 Hungarian witchcraft trial, several women including an Erzsébet Ràcz argued they were not witches but members of the “Convent of Saint Helen,” which may perhaps be understood as the “Society of Tündér Ilona.” (Saint Helen is also the name given the Fairy Goddess in the Balkans.)
See also Fairy Magician, Sicilian Fairy Cult, Tündér; WITCHCRAZE!