Fiefdoms of the Fay

I wrote years ago about how, largely due to Shakespeare’s influence, Oberon and Titania are often regarded as the rulers of the fairies, appearing in a lot of different media. I mentioned a few other fairy queens in the post, but I didn’t say anything about perhaps the earliest known fairy royals, King Finvarra and Queen Oona. They’re from Irish folklore, the rulers of the Daione Sidhe, or mound-dwelling fairies. Thinking back to J.R.R. Tolkien and his distaste for Celtic mythology, I have found through my casual research that it’s difficult to really get a firm grasp on it. We have evidence for several gods worshipped in the British Isles and thereabouts, and stories from the Christian era featuring supernatural elements and mythical heroes, but there’s not a lot of overlap. I’ve seen suggestions that the gods were often retconned into humans or less powerful magical beings, which goes along with how the fay came to be regarded as diminutive in size; they shrank in stature to symbolize their demotion in status. It seems to be much the same way with Norse elves, and much of British lore doesn’t really distinguish between fairies and elves. On the other hand, just because characters appear in myths doesn’t necessarily mean they were worshipped. To contrast this with Norse mythology, Snorri Sturluson was a Christian, and his Prose Edda claimed that the Aesir were actually heroes from Asia Minor who migrated to northern Europe. But he also uses the framing story of the Aesir trying to trick the guy they’re telling the stories to, which allows the myths to be told fairly straight, at least as far as we know. Of course, there are plenty of contradictions in Norse mythology as well, but it’s been worked into a generally coherent narrative that runs from the beginning to the end of the world.

But anyway, Finvarra seems to have often been seen as a benevolent figure, but not always. His wife, Oona, is an exceedingly beautiful woman with blonde hair that reaches to the ground, who wears gossamer decorated with dewdrops.

Despite that, the king has a preference for human women. There’s a tale of how he enchanted and kidnapped a woman named Ethna, who was married to the Lord Kirwan. The husband ordered his people to dig a trench to Finvarra’s palace in Knockmaa, a hill in County Galway; but every night the fairy king filled the trench with earth again. Acting on the advice of a mysterious voice, Kirwan sprinkled the ground with salt, allowing the digging to proceed. Finvarra then let Ethna go. Some accounts claim Finvarra is the King of the Dead, which brings a new dimension to his capturing mortals. There’s occasional overlap between fairylands and the world of the dead. Finvarra’s name means “fair-haired,” and Oona’s, sometimes spelled “Una,” might come from the word for “lamb,” but Neil Gaiman’s Stardust plays on how it’s also Latin for “one.”

There’s also a fairy king named Iubdan, married to a woman named Bebo. They and their people are tiny, but Iubdan is also very boastful, so his court bard told him about the humans and their porridge. Iubdan and Bebo went to the home of Fergus mac Leda, King of Ulster, but were caught in his porridge when they tried to eat it.

Fergus let them go, but only after the fairies gave him a pair of shoes to let him walk on water. I guess they must have changed size to fit the wearer, because I’m sure Fergus and Iudban didn’t have the same shoe size.

Another Shakespearean fairy I mentioned before is Queen Mab, not an actual character but the subject of a fanciful tale told by Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. He describes her as the fairies’ midwife, who provides dreams to people. Her tiny size is emphasized, as she rides in a chariot made from a hazelnut with a gnat as the driver.

There’s some speculation that Mab might have been named after Medb, the Queen of Connacht in Irish mythology.

A beautiful warrior, she was married to Ailill mac Mata, and insisted that the two of them be equal in wealth. When she discovered that her husband was wealthier by a valuable bull, she launched a raid to try to steal another one from Ulster. This was known as the Tain Bo Cuailinge, or Cattle Raid of Cooley, in which a curse resulted in the hero Cuchulainn fighting Medb’s army all by himself. We still don’t know whether Shakespeare intended that connection, though. Regardless, Mab was later sometimes presented as Oberon’s wife in place of Titania, or possibly before her. J.M. Barrie first introduced Peter Pan in a story where he encounters Mab in Kensington Gardens, and she grants him the ability to fly.

The gardens were already associated with fairies in Thomas Tickell’s 1722 poem “Kensington Garden,” in which they were planned out by and named after Oberon’s daughter Kenna.

I appreciate that this list of fairy rulers includes Lurline from the Oz books.

Gloriana from Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, whose personal name is Tanaquill, is said to be a daughter of Oberon’s. Since she represents Queen Elizabeth I, this makes Oberon the equivalent of King Henry VIII.

This entry was posted in Animals, Art, Authors, British, Celtic, Characters, Christianity, Dreams, Fairy Tales, J.R.R. Tolkien, Magic, Mythology, Names, Neil Gaiman, Norse, Oz, Poetry, Relationships, Religion, William Shakespeare and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Fiefdoms of the Fay

  1. Fascinating! Other than Oberon and Titania, I hadn’t known many names of fairy royalty. It’s interesting that there doesn’t seem to be much overlap with the Tuatha Dé Danann who are supposedly the source for the Sidhe. I’ve seen Nuada mentioned as a king among them, and Dagda is also a potential leader.

  2. Pingback: Follow the Feline | VoVatia

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