Trooping or social faeries are so named because they have a social organization that mirrors that of human beings with courts, feasts, banquets, royalty—and warfare. (See Ronald Hutton’s Typology of Faeries.) Although solitary faeries can be violent, they aren’t organized enough to engage in true warfare. Domestic faeries (brownies, urisks, and the like) are generally too kindly disposed for belligerent pursuits—although they can be individually malicious to those who don’t treat them with proper honor.
In Celtic lands, the principal social faeries are the daoine sídhe, an overtly aggressive and warlike race. Virtually every aspect of sídhe society has an adversarial element. As many unfortunates learned too late, every interaction with these proud people can become a challenge of honor demanding a swift and merciless response. Even their romantic relationships are often played out in terms of pursuit, conquest, and domination. It should not, then, be surprising that these Fair Folk can be given to organized violence.
On the one hand, tales abound of assaults upon human victims in reprisal for various affronts to honor or faery custom. On the other hand, these fae are often depicted fighting among themselves.
Warfare in the Mortal Realm
In Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song (Alexander Gardner, 1810), R. H. Cromek reports that priests warned against having dealings with faeries as they were the “light infantry of Satan” (236). The violent tendencies of faery warriors are enumerated: armed with bows and poisoned arrows, mounted on steeds whose hooves do not leave tracks. He goes on to write,
They visited the flocks, the folds, the fields of coming grain, and the habitations of man;—and woe to the mortal whose frailty threw in their power!—a flight of arrows, tipped with deadly plagues, were poured into his folds, and nauseous weeds grew up in his pastures; his coming harvest was blighted with pernicious breath,—and whatever he had no longer prospered. These fatal shafts were formed of the bog reed, pointed with white field flint, and dipped in the dew of hemlock. They were shot into cattle with such magical dexterity that the smallest aperture could not be discovered, but by those deeply skilled in Fairy warfare, and in the cure of elf-shooting. (237)
This is a fairly commonplace description of the violence faeries might inflict: blighting crops and livestock with elf-shot. Other Gaelic tales warn not only of arrows but also faery darts or javelins inflicting death or disease on unsuspecting mortals.
Other stories indicate the sídhe used their prodigious skills as shapeshifters to achieve tactical advantage: spying out the movements of mortals or gaining proximity to their targets by assuming the form of a deer or some other animal: the perfect camouflage!
The daoine sídhe are also known to take sides in great wars among human beings. W. Y. Evans-Wentz (The Fairy Faith of the Celtic Countries [Froude, 1911]) recounts the role the Tuatha Dé Danann played in the Battle of Clontarf, fought near Dublin on April 23, 1014.
And thus is described the meeting of the two armies at Clontarf, and the demons of the air and the phantoms, and all the hosts of the invisible world who were assembled to scatter confusion and to revel in the bloodshed, and how above them in supremacy rose the Badb:—‘It will be one of the wonders of the day of judgement to relate the description of this tremendous onset. There arose a wild, impetuous, precipitate, mad, inexorable, furious, dark, lacerating, merciless, combative, contentious badb, which was shrieking and fluttering over their heads. And there arose also the satyrs, and sprites, and the maniacs of the valleys, and the witches, and goblins, and owls, and destroying demons of the air and firmament, and the demoniac phantom host; and they were inciting and sustaining valour and battle with them.’ (306)
The “Badb” of which Evans-Wentz writes was the name of a Celtic war-goddess. Originally, however, the word signified “rage, fury, or violence” (Evans-Wentz, 304). In this context, it refers to a kind of glamour or mind-trick, inspiring warriors to lose themselves in battle-lust.
In fact, a number of mind-control tactics are associated with Celtic war-goddesses. The goddesses Neman, Macha, and Morrigan each exercise a particular supernatural power on the battlefield. Neman is a confounder of armies, causing allies to fight amongst themselves. Macha inspires bloodthirsty battle-fury. Morrigan inspires supernatural valor and courage under fire (Evans-Wentz, 302).
Note also that the sídhe have under their command various other types of supernatural beings: satyrs, sprites, “maniacs of the valleys,” witches, goblins, owls, demons, phantoms. They are, after all, “the Gentry,” and what good is being an aristocrat if there are no lower classes to dominate?
A picture is now developing of the Fair Folk at war. This picture includes:
- Arrows and darts capable of inflicting disease and death.
- Destruction of crops and livestock as an offensive tactic.
- Riding faery horses with magical characteristics.
- Shape-shifting to gain tactical advantage.
- Bending the minds of mortal combatants.
- Females actively involved in warfare.
- Commanding various types of faery beings (as “support troops”?)
War in the Faery Realm
Faery warfare is not limited to the mortal realm, of course. There are also tales of battles between the daoine sídhe and other mythical races.
The daoine sídhe are said to be the descendants of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the “people of the goddess Danu.” These Irish deities gained control of the island by going to war against other faery races, mainly the Fir Bolg and the Fomori.
They also fought among themselves. The sons of Midir, for example, rose up in rebellion against Bodh Derg, the son of the Dagda, and fought them in yearly battles. In another story, certain daoine sídhe went to war over “two lovable maidens who dwelt in the elfmound” (Evans-Wentz, 301).
Going to war over women brings to mind the story of the Trojan War. This is an apt comparison. Like the Homeric-era Greeks, it is easy to imagine the daoine sídhe going to war over issues of honor. It seems that most altercations involving mortals have at their root an honor challenge: proper respect has not been paid to the Fair Folk or their taboos. It may be that delivering or answering honor-challenges is a primary reason the Fair Folk go to war.
Warfare would most often be a small-scale affair by modern standards. By necessity, battles would be short, swift, and violent. The objective would be to get in, strike, and withdraw. Such attacks will not win large wars but are well suited to reduce the effectiveness of an enemy force, demoralize a fixed population, reduce the flow of supplies, capture towns for short periods of time, or demonstrate that certain targets, such as villages and civic centers, are in fact vulnerable.
If the daoine sídhe truly reflect or mirror the mortal culture from which they sprang, then it should be no surprise that warfare among them would largely be a matter of raids or ambushes to capture livestock, slaves, women, or valuables or to exact revenge for previous insults. This was how the ancient and early medieval Gaels waged war, after all.