Eritrean Traditional Fairies

They live in barren mountains and in woods, in creeks, in rivers and streams, in deep canyons and ravines and dark forests, (and after the coming of the Italians and the subsequent construction of railroads, they seem to have taken a liking to tunnels or galleria) and decide to visit inhabited dwellings once in a while just to see what their mortal counterparts are doing with their sinful lives.

That’s why Addey Lettu leaves some food on the tray after dinner, in case the ethereal guests, our fairies or dekki h’d’rt’na, invite themselves to a mid-night snack. That’s why in every Eritrean household leaving half-eaten food on the serving dish was a sacred duty in the past.

And believe it or not, during harvest time, the farmer is not supposed to count his bushels of wheat or taff (a cereal used to make ingera) for fear that the bad fairies learn of his excessive riches and come to destroy it in an opportune time.

So much so that in our society, fathers (specially in villages) rarely tell you the size of their household members lest the devil take account of that and come to cut the number down to size one day. This seems to have a Biblical origin as witnessed by the fact that when King David tried to count his army, God admonished him. Maybe the devil had already sent his spies during the count to later pass the information over to the Amalekites, Israel’s archenemy.

A lot of people talk about having had an encounter with good and bad fairies in various places, and tell of experiences that are at times very hard to believe. Addey Sebene is a case in point and narrates her story with graphic description and ardor:

“I was walking along a less trodden path far, far away from any human habitation. It was one sunny Sunday afternoon a long, long time ago. I remember it as if it were yesterday, as the wind whined in a mysterious manner and the birds fidgeted on their perches. The trees swayed with a purpose, and I felt like they wanted to say something in my ears.

“Suddenly I got a whiff of the smell of tsebhi’s (spiced stew) and thought it came from a nearby cottage. But there was no cottage to be seen around except for some trees standing among rocky outcrops inside whose crevices lay hidden glittering lizards and deadly snakes.

“A little while and I saw what no eye has seen before: a group of fairies singing and dancing with some amongst them preparing food and still others grooming their hairs. The younger ones skipped rope (hak’tee). If the Good Lord has created a model of beauty in this world of dust, one can see it in fairies only. They look like the sons of the Morning Star (before the fall of Lucifer) singing the praises of God, and if they had been made of flesh and blood, men would have long stopped going to war in order to gaze at their ravishing beauty.

“So, they took me by the hand and asked me to stay with them for some time, which I did, and at the end of the appointed time, I took leave of them and directed my steps towards my village awed by the hospitality of my hosts….”

Unfortunately, once back in the village and after narrating her story to an incredulous friends and relatives, Addey Sebene was simply labeled as h’way (partially lunatic) and the respect she had in the society diminished overnight.  

Mr. Malu tells his story after a three-day solo flight into the world of the fairies. He spent those three days in a ditch and didn’t know what really transpired while in there:

“They took me with them and left me in the ditch and provided me with food and water….”

In all probability, Mr. Malu could have been suffering from mild hallucination (induced by dehydration) after walking for hours in the midday sun.

In fact, walking in the sun plus a whiff of bad smell is said to cause sudden death as if the bad fairy struck you with a thunderbolt. Therefore those who come back to tell their stories are very, very lucky indeed.

But what are fairies and what do they want from us? Let us listen to Addey Mannu, an authority on fairology (?):

“One day a long, long time ago, a woman lived in a small cottage all by herself. She had nine children out of whom five were good-looking and the rest were ugly. The lady, who was a bit superstitious, took it as her duty to hide the beautiful children whenever a guest arrived in the house. The reason was that if people made eye contact with the beautiful children, the Evil Eye would go into action and cause them to fall ill and die in the end.

“Days were followed by nights and nights by days and one fine morning a noblewoman (most probably St. Mary) knocked on the door and was allowed in and was asked to partake of the humble meal that the poor lady had prepared.

“The noblewoman asked the lady if she had children, to which the lady replied in the affirmative. She then went into the kitchen and brought the children with her, but she hid the beautiful ones behind her back and put the ugly ones in front. The noblewoman smelled an odor of dishonesty in the lady’s actions. She asked her why she hid some of her children behind her back, to which the lady replied by saying that she was afraid lest they be bewitched by the Evil Eye.

“The noblewoman took offense at the lady’s insolent statement and reproached her for her perfidious act. She then cursed her saying: Let the ugly children inherit the earth and the beautiful ones remain hidden behind the veil of mystery walking in the ethereal world forever; and from now to eternity they will never be seen by any mortal or profane eyes…..”

Do you know what that makes of us earthlings? Ugly ducklings! All of us, including Helen of Troy, Cleopatra and Di Caprio. Let no one therefore boast saying that he or she is beautiful. If you are really looking for beautiful people, try the ethereal or the dream world!

In most folklore worldwide, fairies are generally considered beneficent toward humans. But there are good and bad fairies. In the West they are often inclined to play pranks. However, the bad amongst them are thought to be responsible for such misfortunes as the bewitching of children, the substitution of ugly fairy babies, known as changelings, for human infants, and the sudden death of livestock.

In our country, all fairies or dekki h’d’rtna are good. And if there are bad amongst them, we call them simply, sir-el, who are generally fussy and ill-tempered. Unfortunately, we don’t have traditional fairies with magic wands that turn turnips into royal coaches.

“What’s the difference between good fairies and bad fairies or sir-els?” I once asked a friend.

“Good fairies are playful and harmless,” he said. “They take you with them to the woods or barren mountains and you get food and lodging for free. You listen to their music which can be classified as an Eritrean version of Greek Sirens and you dance with them the whole day. They treat you kindly and see to it that you return home as soon as possible….”

“How about bad fairies or sir-els?” I asked.

“Bad fairies do also take you to the woods,” he explained. “But once in there they rough you up and sometimes rebuke you for the slightest misbehavior. They can get mean at times and you are likely to go back home with bruises and a black eye…..”

This paid vacation to the fairyland is known as shikushuka, where food, lodging and sightseeing (including a kick in the ass) are provided for free. But the risk is great. Those who do not get the bruises or black eyes leave some of their wits behind and arrive home at best as ding-a-lings and at worst as village idiots.   

In some folk legends, fairies do also take the form of certain animals. When we were little children, every time we walked beside a cemetery, someone would point a finger at an unwary bird perched on a tombstone and would shout:

“That’s Abrehet, my sister!”

“Bite your finger otherwise you will die!” we would shout back.

In those days, people believed that their departed relatives returned as fairy-birds to the cemetery. Such incarnation-oriented beliefs are difficult to explain even for a devout Hindu.

In another instance I remember a classmate who told me that when he went to bed in the evening he tied his little finger (or his private part) to the bed with a string lest the bad fairy took it away.

“Why is it that some kids talk to themselves when they are alone?” I asked a friend.

“Because they are talking with the forest fairies,” he explained.

“And at what do they smile when they are only two-months old?”

“At fairies, of course.”

But sometimes the forest fairies can also come in the guise of monkeys and snatch children to kill them and skin them and use the hide to fashion a drum. And then they would conduct their beastly and ghoulish dance the whole night! 

They also visit you as bees and as praying mantis. When a bee alights on your person be sure to get appointed as Ambassador or as village magistrate. And if a praying mantis crawls on your body, brace yourself for an elegant suit. 

The list of what fairies or sir-els can and cannot do is too long to enumerate here; suffice it to say that in some cases fairies can also bring epidemic diseases such as measles and the common flu into a town or a village.

The only proven medicine is to organize a dance and ask the fairies to take away the disease along with them and you dance all the way to the outskirts of the town or the village with the invisible fairies on your side and after saying your last farewell to the disease, you return home safer and wiser than before.


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