Every seven years, the fairies must pay a tax to Hell: a living sacrifice. To save themselves, they steal humans as changelings to sacrifice in their place. This folktale has served as the seed for many modern-day faerie fantasy books - Tithe by Holly Black being one example. But the idea of the fairy tithe in actual folklore is rare, rare, rare. Only three stories hint at it. These are a) Thomas the Rhymer, b) the trial of accused witch Alison Pearson, and probably most famously, c) the ballad of Tam Lin.
Thomas the Rhymer
Sir Thomas de Ercildoun, famously known as the poet/prophet Thomas the Rhymer, lived about 1220-1298. The romance "Thomas of Ercildoune" has been dated as early as the 14th century, and the oldest existing versions of the ballad adaptation "Thomas the Rhymer" go back to 1700-1750. Everyone has different ideas on when they were originally written. And did the ballad come first, or was it the romance?
In this story, Thomas the Rhymer is swept away to Elfland by a fairy queen who becomes his lover. But he cannot stay. The queen sends him home lest he be seized by a foul fiend of Hell who takes a tithe from among the people of Fairyland. Thomas returns to our world with skills as a storyteller and prophet.
"Thomas of Erceldoune" and "Thomas the Rhymer" are similar to other ballads and poems like "St Patrick's Purgatory" and "The Daemon Lover" in that there are scenes where a mortal, visiting the Otherworld, is able to see Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory from afar. This sets Thomas's Elfland as a spiritual realm akin to both Paradise and Hell, but also clearly separate.
Tam Lin is a famous Scottish ballad. The Complaynt of Scotland (1549) features the oldest existing mention of ""the tayl of the Ȝong tamlene and of the bold braband." A dance "thom of lyn" is also mentioned. These may or may not be Tam Lin.
The ballad form of Tam Lin appeared in "Kertonha, or, The Fairy Court" (collected by Francis James Child as ballad 39C), dated to 1769. Many other versions have been collected.
A young woman, Janet, is in the woods when she encounters a knight named Tam Lin, a man stolen away years ago by the Fairy Queen. Every seven years, on Halloween, the fairies give a tithe to Hell. Tam Lin is likely going to be that tithe. It's up to a now-pregnant Janet to rescue him, which she does in a climactic transformation sequence.
Tam Lin bears a resemblance to the ancient Greek myth of the goddess Thetis. A mortal man was chosen to be her husband, but in order to win her, he had to hold onto her while she transformed into all sorts of shapes - just as Janet must do with Tam Lin. In the same way, Tam Lin overlaps with a lot of other stories, including that of Thomas the Rhymer.
Alison Pearson or Alesoun Peirsoun was a woman from Fife, executed for witchcraft in 1588. In her testimony, she described being taken away by fairies and learning mystic arts of healing from them. She claimed that her cousin William Sympson was also part of this, and that he was responsible for warning and rescuing her:
"Mr Williame will cum before and tell hir and bid hir keip hir and sane hir, that scho be nocht tane away with thame agane for the teynd of thame gais ewerie 3eir to hell."
"Mr. William will come before and tell her and bid her keep her and sane her, that she be not taken away with them again, for the teind (tenth) of them go every year to hell."
Was Alison inspired by the stories of Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin, or by a now-lost tradition that birthed both stories?
Each of these three stories deal with a part of the fairy court going to hell. This is always something which the mortal characters are warned about and must avoid. Tithe, teind, kane, and fee are all words used.
Tithe or teind comes from the Old English word for "tenth." A tithe is a tenth of your money or belongings, traditionally given to a church or temple. This is a traditional element in Judaism and Christianity. In this case, the tithe is not paid to a church, but to Hell, and it plays out as a human sacrifice. The religious element implies that the fairies worship the devil.
Kane, on the other hand, is a Scots word referring to a vassal or tenant's fee paid to their landlord. It has nothing to do with tenths, and implies that the fairies hold fealty to Satan.
From another angle, in almost all versions of Tam Lin, this scene takes place at Halloween. (The exception places it at May Day.) The idea that the fairy court went riding at Halloweentide was very common, showing up in the ballad of Alison Gross, Alexander Montgomerie's Poems, and others. Halloween (All Hallows' Eve) and All Saints' Day are Christian feast which were used to supplant the Gaelic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-win). This holiday marked the end of harvest and start of winter. Samhain was a time when spirits and fairies or Aos Si moved freely in the human world. People left out food to appease the dead who might visit, and wore disguises to avoid them.
Most importantly, In the Irish work Lebor Gabála Érenn, from about the 11th century, Samain was tax time. People were forced to deliver two thirds of their children, wheat and milk as a tax to the Fomorians, otherworldly beings who had taken over the land.
Halloween, the time that the fairies go riding, is the time of a harvest tax.
Fairies as servants of Hell
The tithe or kane to hell puts fairies in the position of either worshippers or tenants of Satan.
There's a tradition throughout Europe that fairies are fallen angels (see "Origin of Underground People"). As the story goes, when they were cast out of heaven, they were not quite as evil as the demons, or they did not quite make it all the way to Hell and instead landed on Earth. Katharine Briggs called them "not quite devils and yet subject to Satan."
According to Kathleen McGowan in The Ballad of Tam Lin, the Hell-tithe is a Christian invention meant to demonize the fairies. Hell and human sacrifices would be absolutely foreign to the ancient Celtic fairy.
To McGowan, ancient fairies are essentially good, not evil. She points to their alternate names of "the good folk" and "good neighbors.” Says McGowan, "evil simply could not and did not exist in the land of fairy."
Unfortunately, the name "good folk" cannot be taken at face value. There are many names for fairies - e.g., the Fair Folk, the Gentle Folk, the Seelie (happy, blessed) Court. But taking those names literally would be a major error. They are closer to the ancient equivalent of the Eumenides (Kindly Ones) in the Greek play Orestes, from 5th century BC. The Kindly Ones are really the Erinyes, “Furies,” terrifying and brutal bringers of justice.
See also this Scottish rhyme, where a fairy explains its preferred terminology:
Names like "the good folk" or "the kindly ones" are euphemisms for the more ambiguous imp, elf, and fairy. People called fairies good and blessed not to describe them, but to appease them and avoid summoning them!
But there is still a leap from that to tying fairies directly to demons. The language choices and very concept of Hell and Satan are Christian.
Christians did demonize English and Scottish fairies, along with all spirit beings from other cultures. A big part of this process happened during the English Reformation. Reformed Christians reinterpreted tradition and folklore to fit a Protestant worldview. According to Darren Oldridge, "By the late sixteenth century, it was well established among reformed Christians that such 'doubtful spirits' were figments encouraged by the Roman [Catholic] Church."
Fairies, demons, witches, superstition, illusion, and popery were all wrapped up together. Robin was a euphemistic nickname for the devil and also the name of the famous Robin Goodfellow. Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan (1651) called fairies servants of "Beelzebub, prince of demons." Witch trials featured both Satan and the Fairy Queen, and witches' familiars had names similar to those of folkloric fairies. (See Emma Wilby, "The Witch's Familiar and the Fairy in Early Modern England.") As for changelings, there was plenty of overlap between fairies and demons, with both playing the role of baby-snatchers. (See my blog post "The History of the Cambion.")
The death of Alison Pearson and the oldest surviving references to Tam Lin were both in the mid-to-late sixteenth century, putting them right in the middle of this era. The tithe to hell in Alison Pearson consists of a tenth of the fairy population going down to Hell. That would have been a natural conclusion for people of that time. Of course the fairies were going to Hell; where else would they go?
"Thomas the Rhymer" predates those stories. Thomas' fairy queen is kind and loving. There are different ways you could interpret her character, but she is at least not all bad. Elfland is explicitly separate from both Heaven and Hell. Still, even at that point, there was the idea of a being from Hell taking away the finest fairy specimens as a fee.
Why did this fee need to be paid?
Tam Lin as Changeling
This is one of the most prevalent explanations today, both for Tam Lin's tithe and for the concept of changelings. It's accounted for from many folklorists and scholars. Lowry Charles Wimberly, writing in 1959, stated blithely that this was standard belief in Scotland. Fairies took changelings in order to offer them to Hell. Fairies be crazy.
There are various muddled explanations for the fairy predilection for baby swaps. Some say that they want their own children nursed by human mothers, or that they prefer beautiful human children to their own, or perhaps just out of pure malice and mischief.
Tam Lin offers a bloody and memorable answer: so that fairies can dodge the draft. They don't want to sacrifice a fairy child to Hell, so they use a human instead. This tied in with the idea, particularly strong due to the Reformation, that fairies held fealty to Satan.
However, I see no evidence for this theory.
Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer are the only fairy stories that really feature the concept of the hell-tithe. According to Emma Lyle (p. 130), "in the absence of other evidence for the story, it is perhaps more likely that the two narratives are directly related." The relevant stanzas in Thomas of Erceldoune and Tam Lin are similar in language and structure, making it likely that one influenced the other.
So what about the changeling theory?
Firstly, Tam Lin fears that he'll be chosen as the tithe not because he is human, but because he is one of the most handsome: "fair and full of flesh." Only two versions have him in danger specifically because he's mortal. And in Version C (one of the earliest surviving versions), Tam Lin isn't human at all. He identifies himself as "a fairy, lyth and limb" and tells Janet that "at every seven years end/ We’re a’ dung down to hell." So the entire fairy court is going. The versions are actually very inconsistent on whether just one person will be sacrificed, or if a tenth of the population will go, or whether all the fairies are going.
It's also not even clear whether Tam Lin's even on the chopping block. In Child's Version 39A, for example, all we have is his suspicion that he'll be sacrificed, and the Queen of Fairies seems angry not to have lost a potential sacrifice, but to have lost "the bonniest knight in a' my companie."
Secondly, there is no fake changeling Tam Lin hanging out in the human world, so far as we know.
Still, as evidence, Emma Lyle lists multiple Scottish tales with a similar idea. In this tale type, someone (typically a woman) has been carried away by the fairies, but someone (typically a male relative) may retrieve her from the fairies' march on Halloween if he pulls her from her horse and does not let go. In some versions he's successful, but in others, he falters at the last moment and she is lost forever.
Lyle gives ten versions of similar tales, but only one of the examples given explicitly mentions a changeling - cases where a "wife was taken by the fairies, and another woman was left in her place." The wife's death comes suddenly, and then the husband realizes that the woman he buried was a fraud and his real wife has been stolen. Other versions could imply the same thing, when they make references to the wife's supposed death.
Another problem is the lack of any mention of Hell, the Devil, tithes, or kanes. The woman in these stories only says that she will be lost forever. In a couple of the examples, after a rescue goes awry, there is the gruesome detail of the walls of the house being covered with blood the next day. In one example, the stolen girl confides that if the rescue fails, the fairies will kill her out of spite. But that's still not a hell-tithe.
The changeling-as-hell-tithe is a theory from later researchers, based on three different tale traditions.
So it's an intriguing theory tying together these different stories, but has little evidence. It's just been repeated as common knowledge by different researchers.
But what if we look at it through a different lens, laying aside the comparison to changeling tales? Could the hell-tithe be a memory of an older, pre-Christian tradition?
The fairy tithe as remnant of pagan sacrifice
The website tam-lin.org suggests that Tam Lin is a harvest figure or Sacred King. This trope was codified by James Frazer in The Golden Bough, his study of mythology and anthropology. The theme: a king-consort is chosen every spring. His people celebrate him all year until harvest-time, at which point they ritually sacrifice him.
There are many customs of straw effigies being created and burnt at harvest-time. Myths abound where gods of crops, fertility or the sun die and return, like the fields that spring back to life.
So perhaps Tam Lin is being sacrificed as part of a harvest ritual that takes place every seven years. The time of year is definitely right.
This also ties in with the idea of the Samhain tax to the Fomorians, who demanded human sacrifices as well as food from the harvest. The Fomorians were a supernatural, semi-divine race who came from the sea or from underground. Here's our pre-Christian concept that otherworldly beings demanded human sacrifice around Samhain!
Alternately, Fairies: A Guide to the Celtic Fair Folk by Morgan Daimler points to drownings and sacrifices to river deities. According to this theory, "Thomas the Rhymer" takes place near the river Tweed and "Tam Lin" is set off the Ettrick Water, a tributary of the Tweed. Daimler raises the possibility that Tam Lin's sacrifice could be a memory of a regular human sacrifice offered to the Tweed - a small localized tradition, explaining why only these few stories mention the tithe to Hell. This is particularly intriguing because Tam Lin's name could be tied to water. The Gaelic "linn" is a pool, pond, body of water, lake, or sea. This theory is fun but relies on some guesswork and jumps. Alison Pearson, from the more distant Byrehill, Fife, is another issue.
Although often circulated and popular in modern books, the tithe to Hell was apparently never a widespread belief. Only two tales - which are probably closely related - mention it, and one witch trial. No other stories, changeling tales or otherwise make mention of a tithe to hell.
The story we know today has to have picked up a lot of elements after Christianity was established in that area of the world - Satan, Hell, the collusion of fairies and demons. However, it is interesting how far back the separate pieces of Tam Lin go.
A human who obtains a supernatural spouse by holding on as they transform into different shapes? Greek myth.
Otherworldly beings who demand a human sacrifice at Samhain? Irish myth.
A mortal stolen away to the Otherworld, who has to be won back? Pretty much everywhere.
Sources and Further Reading
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Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.