Fairy Theft

legends about thieving fairies
translated and/or edited by

D. L. Ashliman

© 2009


  1. Of the Subterranean Inhabitants (Scotland)

  2. Fairy Theft (Scotland)

  3. Fairy Control over Crops (Ireland)

  4. Fairies on May Day (Ireland)

  5. The Sidhe (Ireland).

  6. Link to The Silver Cup (Isle of Man).

  7. The Three Cows (England).

  8. A "Verry Volk" Feast (Wales and Brittany)

  9. Riechert the Smith (Germany).

Return to D. L. Ashliman's folktexts, a library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.

Of the Subterranean Inhabitants


THESE Siths, or FAIRIES, they call Sleagh Maith, or the Good People, it would seem, to prevent the Dint of their ill Attempts, (for the Irish use to bless all they fear Harme of;) and are said to be of a midle Nature betuixt Man and Angel, as were Dæmons thought to be of old; of intelligent studious Spirits, and light changable Bodies, (lyke those called Astral), somewhat of the Nature of a condensed Cloud, and best seen in Twilight. Thes Bodies be so plyable thorough the Subtilty of the Spirits that agitate them, that they can make them appear or disappear att Pleasure. Some have Bodies or Vehicles so spungious, thin, and desecat, that they are fed by only sucking into some fine spirituous Liquors, that peirce lyke pure Air and Oyl: others feid more gross on the Foyson or substance of Corns and Liquors, or Corne it selfe that grows on the Surface of the Earth, which these Fairies steall away, partly invisible, partly preying on the Grain, as do Crowes and Mice; wherefore in this same Age, they are some times heard to bake Bread, strike Hammers, and do such lyke Services within the little Hillocks they most haunt: some whereof of old, before the Gospell dispelled Paganism, and in some barbarous Places as yet, enter Houses after all are at rest, and set the Kitchens in order, cleansing all the Vessels. Such Drags goe under the name of Brownies. When we have plenty, they have Scarcity at their Homes; and on the contrarie (for they are empowred to catch as much Prey everywhere as they please,) there Robberies notwithstanding oft tymes occassion great Rickes of Corne not to bleed so weill, (as they call it,) or prove so copious by verie farr as wes expected by the Owner.

What Food they extract from us is conveyed to their Homes by secret Paths, as sume skilfull Women do the Pith and Milk from their Neighbours Cows into their own Chiese-hold thorow a Hair-tedder, at a great Distance, by Airt Magic, or by drawing a spickot fastened to a Post, which will bring milk as farr of as a Bull will be heard to roar. The Method they take to recover their Milk is a bitter chyding of the suspected Inchanters, charging them by a counter Charme to give them back their own, in God, or their Master's Name. But a little of the Mother's Dung stroakit on the Calves Mouth before it such any, does prevent this theft.

Fairy Theft


The elves have got a worse name for stealing than they deserve. So far as taking things without the knowledge or consent of the owners is concerned, the accusation is well founded; they neither ask nor obtain leave, but there are important respects in which their depredations differ from the pilferings committed among men by jailbirds and other dishonest people.

The fairies do not take their booty away bodily, they only take what is called in Gaelic its toradh, i.e. its substance, virtue, fruit, or benefit. The outward appearance is left, but the reality is gone. Thus, when a cow is elf-taken, it appears to its owner only as suddenly smitten by some strange disease (chaidh am beathach ud a ghonadh).

In reality the cow is gone, and only its semblance remains, animated it may be by an Elf, who receives all the attentions paid to the sick cow, but gives nothing in return. The seeming cow lies on its side, and cannot be made to rise. It consumes the provender laid before it, but does not yield milk or grow fat. In some cases it gives plenty of milk, but milk that yields no butter. If taken up a hill, and rolled down the incline, it disappears altogether. If it dies, its flesh ought not to be eaten -- it is not beef, but a stock of alder wood, an aged elf, or some trashy substitute.

Similarly when the toradh of land is taken, there remains the appearance of a crop, but a crop without benefit to man or beast -- the ears are unfilled, the grain is without weight, the fodder without nourishment.

A still more important point of difference is, that the fairies only take away what men deserve to lose. When mortals make a secret of (cleth), or grumble (ceasad) over, what they have, the fairies get the benefit, and the owner is a poor man, in the midst of his abundance. When (to use an illustration the writer has more than once heard) a farmer speaks disparagingly of his crop, and, though it be heavy, tries to conceal his good fortune, the fairies take away the benefit of his increase. The advantage goes away mysteriously "in pins and needles" (na phrìneachan 's na shnàdun), "in alum and madder' (na alm 's na mhadair), as the saying is, and the farmer gains nothing from his crop. Particularly articles of food, the possession of which men denied with oaths (air a thiomnadh), became fairy property.

The elves are also blamed for lifting with them articles mislaid. These are generally restored as mysteriously and unaccountably as they were taken away. Thus, a woman blamed the elves for taking her thimble. It was placed beside her, and when looked for could not be found. Some time after she was sitting alone on the hillside and found the thimble in her lap. This confirmed her belief in its being the fairies that took it away. In a like mysterious manner a person's bonnet might be whipped off his head, or the pot for supper be lifted off the fire, and left by invisible hands on the middle of the floor.

The accusation of taking milk is unjust. It is brought against the elves only in books, and never in the popular creed. The fairies take cows, sheep, goats, horses, and it may be the substance or benefit (toradh) of butter and cheese, but not milk.

Many devices were employed to thwart fairy inroads. A burning ember (eibhleag) was put into "sowens" (cabhruich), one of the weakest and most unsubstantial articles of human food and very liable to fairy attack. It was left there till the dish was ready for boiling, i.e. about three days after. A sieve should not be allowed out of the house after dark, and no meal unless it be sprinkled with salt. Otherwise, the fairies may, by means of them, take the substance out of the whole farm produce. For the same reason a hole should be put with the finger in the little cake (bonnach beag's toll ann), made with the remnant of the meal after a baking, and when given to children, as it usually is, a piece should be broken off it. A nail driven into a cow, killed by falling over a precipice, was supposed by the more superstitious to keep the elves away.

One of the most curious thefts ascribed to them was that of querns, or handmills (Bra, Brathuinn). To keep them away these handy and useful implements should be turned deiseal, i.e. with the right hand turn, as sunwise. What is curious in the belief is, that the handmill is said to have been originally got from the fairies themselves. Its sounds have often been heard by the belated peasant, as it was being worked inside some grassy knoll, and songs, sung by the fairy women employed at it, have been learned.

Fairy Control over Crops


Fairies are believed to control crops and their ripening. A field of turnips may promise well, and its owner will count on so many tons to the acre, but if when the crop is gathered it is found to be far short of the estimate, the explanation is that the fairies have extracted so much substance from it. The same thing is the case with corn.

Fairies on May Day


On May Day the good people can steal butter if the chance is given them. If a person enters a house then, and churning is going on, he must take a hand in it, or else there will be no butter.

The Sidhe


As to their food, they will use common things left for them on the hearth or outside the threshold, cold potatoes it may be, or a cup of water or of milk. But for their feasts they choose the best of all sorts, taking it from the solid world, leaving some worthless likeness in its place; when they rob the potatoes from the ridges the diggers find but rottenness and decay; they take the strength from the meat in the pot, so that when put on the plates it does not nourish. They will not touch salt; there is danger to them in it. They will go to good cellars to bring away the wine.

The Three Cows


There was a farmer, and he had three cows, fine fat beauties they were. One was called Facey, the other Diamond, and the third Beauty. One morning he went into his cowshed, and there he found Facey so thin that the wind would have blown her away. Her skin hung loose about her, all her flesh was gone, and she stared out of her great eyes as though she'd seen a ghost; and what was more, the fireplace in the kitchen was one great pile of wood-ash. Well, he was bothered with it; he could not see how all this had come about.

Next morning his wife went out to the shed, and see! Diamond was for all the world as wisht a looking creature as Facey -- nothing but a bag of bones, all the flesh gone, and half a rick of wood was gone, too; but the fireplace was piled up three feet high with white wood ashes. The farmer determined to watch the third night; so he hid in a closet which opened out of the parlor, and he left the door just ajar, that he might see what passed.

Tick, tick went the clock, and the farmer was nearly tired of waiting; he had to bite his little finger to keep himself awake, when suddenly the door of his house flew open, and in rushed maybe a thousand pixies, laughing and dancing and dragging at Beauty's halter till they had brought the cow into the middle of the room. The farmer really thought he should have died with fright, and so perhaps he would, had not curiosity kept him alive.

Tick, tick went the clock, but he did not hear it now. He was too intent staring at the pixies and his last beautiful cow. He saw them throw her down, fall on her, and kill her; then with their knives they ripped her open, and flayed her as clean as a whistle. Then out ran some of the little people and brought in firewood and made a roaring blaze on the hearth, and there they cooked the flesh of the cow. They baked and they boiled, they stewed and they fried.

"Take care," cried one, who seemed to be the king. "Let no bone be broken."

Well, when they had all eaten, and had devoured every scrap of beef on the cow, they began playing games with the bones, tossing them one to another. One little leg bone fell close to the closet door, and the farmer was so afraid lest the pixies should come there and find him in their search for the bone, that he put out his hand and drew it in to him.

Then he saw the king stand on the table and say, "Gather the bones!"

Round and round flew the imps, picking up the bones.

"Arrange them," said the king; and they placed them all in their proper positions in the hide of the cow.

Then they folded the skin over them, and the king struck the heap of bone and skin with his rod. Whisht! Up sprang the cow and lowed dismally. It was alive again; but alas! as the pixies dragged it back to its stall, it halted in the off forefoot, for a bone was missing.

The cock crew,
Away they flew.
And the farmer crept trembling to bed.

A "Verry Volk" Feast

Wales (and Brittany)

I heard the following story many years ago:

The tenant on the Eynonsford Farm here in Gower had a dream one night, and in it thought he heard soft sweet music and the patter of dancing feet. Waking up, he beheld his cow-shed, which opened off his bedroom, filled with a multitude of little beings, about one foot high, swarming all over his fat ox, and they were preparing to slaughter the ox. He was so surprised that he could not move. In a short time the Verry Volk had killed, dressed, and eaten the animal.

The feast being over, they collected the hide and bones, except one very small leg-bone which they could not find, placed them in position, then stretched the hide over them; and, as the farmer looked, the ox appeared as sound and fat as ever, but when he let it out to pasture in the morning he observed that it had a slight lameness in the leg lacking the missing bone.

Riechert the Smith


A cultivated field adjoins the east side of Dwarf Mountain near Dardesheim. Once a smith by the name of Riechert planted peas in this field. He noticed that frequently someone picked the peas just as they were at their best. In order to catch the thief he built a little hut on the field, then kept watch in it day and night. He did not see anything during the daytime, but every morning he discovered that in spite of his standing guard some of his crop had been stolen.

Angry at his lack of success, he decided to thresh the remaining peas right in the field. He set to work at daybreak. He had not threshed out half the peas when he heard pitiful screams. Investigating, he saw one of the dwarfs lying on the ground beneath the peas. Riechert had crushed his skull with his threshing flail, and because his fog cap had been knocked off, the dwarf was now visible. He quickly fled back into the mountain.

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Revised May 15, 2009.