The subject of fairies is one that has gained a lot of popularity in the last several years, not only in general but also in specific as different named types of fairy beings come to prominence. One of these is the Irish Aos Sidhe [pronounced ace shee] who have gained increasing notoriety across fiction, academia, and various spiritual studies. And yet for all this increased attention the Aos Sidhe often remain poorly understood and hard to define. Are they fairies? Are they the old Irish gods? The human dead? Seeking to delve deeper into this subject often creates more confusion because of the abundance of good, bad, and just odd material to be found online. So, who then are the Aos Sidhe?
In modern parlance the common term used for these beings is sidhe, a shortened form of aos sidhe. Aos sidhe and the related Daoine Sidhe mean ‘people of the fairy mounds’; sidhe is both a noun meaning fairy mounds and an adjective used for anything fairylike or Otherworldly. Because of this, although sidhe is used as a kind of slang just to mean the beings within the hill, it is often seen referring to the place the Aos Sidhe live but also features in compound terms like bean sidhe [fairy woman] or cú sidhe [fairy hound]. This can cause some confusion with people who see the word sidhe and assume it means the beings when it means the hills, so context is often important. There is some ongoing debate about whether the English word fairy is the best option to translate sidhe but it has been used this way for hundreds of years now and is firmly established both in vernacular use and in dictionaries. All of this may seem a bit tedious but it is important in starting to understand who the Aos Sidhe are to understand the meaning of the term in Irish.
So, Aos Sidhe means people of the fairy mounds, but why are they called that? The simple answer is that they are, indeed, people of the fairy mounds and so the name is simply descriptive. But as with anything on this subject its more complicated than that, if only because not all of the Aos Sidhe are associated with hills or mounds at all. In fact we see many stories that connect these beings to magical islands and some, such as with the Slua Sidhe, that are found in the air. So it isn’t necessarily the literal hill or mound that matters but the wider concept attached to that of an entrance to the Otherworld. Are they the people of the fairy hills? Yes. But in a wider context they are the people of the Otherworld and that is the best way to understand the concept I think.
We are told in several stories that the Tuatha De Danann were defeated by the Gaels and went into the sidhe, the fairy mounds, and became the Aos Sidhe, the people of the fairy mounds. This leads many people to directly equate the two groups but it’s a bit more complicated than that. While its true that the Tuatha De Danann went into the fairy hills and became people of the mounds, it isn’t true that they were the first ones there or indeed the only ones there. We have several references to the ‘Riders of the Sidhe’ existing before the Tuatha De Danann went into the sidhe, and we have a couple sources which tell us that when that happened it was Manannán mac Lir, already king of the Otherworldly island of Emhain Abhlac, who taught the Tuatha De how to live in the Otherworld. While the Tuatha De Danann are among the Aos Sidhe we also find stories of many other types of beings – the Each Uisce, the Púca, the Rón – across folk belief all of whom exist in the nebulous realm of the Otherworld. There are also some among the Aos Sidhe who were once human, either stolen away by the sidhe at some point or thought to have died and this adds another layer of complexity to the topic. When we look across the breadth of source material we find not one simple answer to who the Aos Sidhe are but a range of possibilities all rooted in various beliefs.
Speaking of sources. We have references to the Aos Sidhe in Irish material as far back as we have written material in the Irish, approximately the 9th century with the text itself – the Echtra Condla – dated several centuries earlier by linguists based on the language used. Not only do the Aos Sidhe appear in the oldest material but they continue forward into the present day, traced across a millennia and more of mythology and folklore. We find mentions of the people of the fairy mounds in the great Irish epic the Táin Bó Cúailgne, in the 16th century story of the “Fate of the Children of Tuireann,” and in the tales of Fionn Mac Cumhal and the Fianna, most notably the famous tale of Niamh and Oisín. And stories of these beings abound in the folklore of the 19th and early 20th century, as well as 20th and 21st century folk belief. They are a consistent thread across belief from the beginning of written sources to today, and have left a deep mark in literature, poetry, and personal accounts.
Are they fairies? This may be one of the most pivotal questions today as the way fairies are understood becomes increasingly niche and specific and moves away from the older and current understanding of the Aos Sidhe. Fairies, unfortunately in my opinion, are often envisioned as tiny, winged, and largely powerless while in contrast the Aos Sidhe are human-seeming – at least when they choose to be – wingless, and powerful. Powerful enough that a great deal of folk material is aimed at warding against them or addressing harm they have caused. As mentioned above the term sidhe is often translated as fairy and in Ireland the two terms are used interchangeably by many people, however this is used with the cultural context of who and what the Aos Sidhe are. Outside that context equating the two can create confusion between the Irish idea of the powerful, dangerous beings of the Otherworld and the modern twee idea of sprite-like fairies. So this question, like the others has a layered answer: yes they are fairies in the sense of what English term is the closest equivalent, but no they aren’t in the sense of what some people might imagine a fairy is.
The Aos Sidhe are a complicated subject, as anything would be whose history stretches across 1500 years. They are the people of the fairy mounds who may live in those hills or in the air or sea or islands. They are the old Irish gods except the ones who aren’t and never were, the ones that are entirely of the Otherworld or the ones that were born human. They are fairies, but the sort of fairies that can look very human and who can bless or destroy a human’s life with their magic. They are a diverse group that is often treated homogenously except when they aren’t. And if that seems confusing then you are beginning to understand them.