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Halloween Fortune-telling Games and Fairy Legends

Updated on October 22, 2014
Robert Burns, a widely well-known Scottish Poet and Lyricist. (1759-1796)
Robert Burns, a widely well-known Scottish Poet and Lyricist. (1759-1796)


Most of the fortune-telling games were almost always done to learn about someone's future husband- either by name, character or profession- marriage was an important part in the life of a rural, pre-industrial young person. These fortune-telling rituals, described very well by Burns and carried down all the way to the early twentieth century, left a rather romantic side on Halloween forever (Morton, 2012).

One fortune-telling game at that time was described in a Burns poem, "the merry, friendly, countra folk' begin the evening by venturing into the kale field to pull stalks." The pulling of stalks became a popular eighteenth- and nineteenth century fortune-telling game. This game was done in Ireland with cabbages.

There are several ways of doing this ritual- in some the fortune-seeker must enter the field backwards or blindfolded- but all involve studying the stalk to find out the nature of one's future spouse (Morton, 2012). In the poem by Burns, it also describes the shape of the stalk- "muckle anes an' straught anes"- the tastte- "sweet or sour"- will often reveal the spouse's character (Morton, 2012).

The kale stalk was also nailed up over the main doorway in the belief that the first young person to enter beneath would be the future spouse, or would have the initials of the spouse. This fortune-telling game was better known as "kailing."

The first ceremony of Halloween is pulling each a "stock," or
plant of kail. They must go out, hand in hand, with eyes shut, and pull the
first they meet with: its being big or little, straight or crooked, is
prophetic of the size and shape of the grand object of all their spells-the
husband or wife.

The Burning of Nuts

The following four stanzas are about burning nuts. Here is how Gay described the practice in the Thursday section of Sheperd's Week: "Two hazel-nuts I threw into the flame and to each nut I gave a sweet-hearts name" (Morton, 2012).

That quote means that the nut that blazed the brightest and longest meant the truest lover, in Halloween, however the two nuts are named for the lovers, and depending on whether they burn together or jump away from each other, it still means their relationship will keep on going great.

Mirror, Mirror Show me my Future Lover

A method that was popular even into the twentieth century in which a curious young lady would stand before a mirror on Halloween night holding an apple and, only after eating or slicing it into sections, would she see the face of her future lover reflected in the glass.

"A lady narrates that on the 1st of November her servant rushed into the room and fainted on the floor. On recovering, she said that she had played a trick that night in the name of the devil before the looking-glass; but what she had seen she dared not speak of, though the remembrance of it would never leave her brain, and she knew the shock would kill her. They tried to laugh her out of her fears, but the next night she was found quiet dead, with her features horribly contorted, lying on the floor before the looking-glass, which was shivered to pieces" -Lady Jane Wilde

Stacks of Barley and Water Rituals

Another well-known fortune-telling method: the fortune-seeker was blindfolded three times around a stack of barley, at the end of the last turn would embrace the future beloved. In a poem by Burns, Will tries to do this, but does not know that he really walked three times around a stack of timber by mistake; he is surprised to come face-to-face with a rotted piece of oak that he mistakes for an aged woman (Morton, 2012).

Many of the now obsolete fortune-telling rituals also involved using water, the most popular was 'the dipping of the sark sleeve.' Burns mentions that this must be performed 'whare three lairds' lands meet at a burn', and at that point a young woman would dip her sleeve into the water, then return back home to set the shirt to dry by the hearth-fire. The man would then go to sleep, and during the night would see her intended enter the room and turn the shirt, so that the other side of the shirt would dry also. Burns adds playful Halloween scares into his poem when the lady is woken up by a startling noise (which could be the Devil or a bird). Here is an eighteenth-century sleeve-dipping account:

"at the instigation of an old woman from Ireland, she brought in a pint of water from a well which brides and burials pass over, and dipt her shirt into it, and hung it before the fire; that she either dreamed, or else there came something and turned about the chair on which her shirt was, but she could not well see what it was. Her sentence was a rebuke before the congregations." -Robert Burns

The Luggie ritual consisted of small bowls with handles (lugs). This tradition, three bowls were filled with different substances and arrayed before a blindfolded fortune-seeker, whose future was foretold by whether the person touched the dish of clean water (this meant marriage to a virgin), if touched dirty water (meant marriage to a widow) or nothing (no marriage will happen). The luggie bowls was one of the most common Halloween games, these bowls can hold, while playing the game, can hold not water, but objects. A nineteenth-century version instructed that three tin cups partially full of water should be placed on the small ends of three funnels, which would be set up in a line on the floor. The ladies should then take turns at leaping over each of these constructions, with the number of cups knocked over dictating the time until marriage would take place.

Fairies were well known to roam in the mortal world on Halloween night.
Fairies were well known to roam in the mortal world on Halloween night.

Fairies on Halloween

Scottish and Irish had a considerable amount of folklore focused on fairies or sidh, and on Halloween these creatures were mostly mentioned in this lore. The fact that people believed in fairies was mainly among the descendents of the Celts that borrows the theory that the fairies are the old gods who turned into small supernatural imps by Christianity; however in some fairy stories, the fairies also seem to be connected closely with the spirits of the dead. For instance, Lady Wilde, recorded a traditional Irish story called 'November Eve' in which a fisherman named Hugh King stays out too late in the night of Halloween, and encounters a large group of merrymakers who tell him that they are on their way to a fair. Hugh goes with them, on the way he meets Finvarra, the king of the fairies, and then is pulled into a dance by the spirit of the dead woman. Hugh surprisingly survives that dreadful night, but in the morning he realizes that the fairies were mocking and taunting him because he ignored the warnings to stay inside on Halloween night.

Fairies were thought to live within the grassy hillocks that dotted the landscapes of Ireland and Scotland, and only on Halloween might the fairy realm be opened to mortals. One Scottish belief is that if a mortal who walked nine times in an anticlockwise direction around one of the sidh-mounds on Halloween night would be able to enter the fairy realm, where he would experience the pleasures of that world; however, he would be unable to return to his mortal existence, and would become forever a shi ich, or 'man of peace'. (Morton, 2012). Fairies would also leave the fairy realm to visit the mortals.

There were many fairies who were not so kind towards humans. In The Golden Bough (1922), Sir James Frazer relates a Scottish yarn of two young men who, on Halloween night, encounter a brightly lit house full of dancing merrymakers; one of the men immediately went inside the house to join in the fun, but on the other hand the other men suspected that the house might actually be a fairy knoll. He placed a needle in the doorway before entering, and successfully broke the power of the fairies and were able to escape safely. Sadly, his friend was trapped in the fairy realm for a year, and when Halloween came again he was found still dancing before he fell into a pile of bones.

In Northern Ireland, families were extra cautious about letting their children out on Halloween night because of fairies well into the early twentieth century. If a child stepped on a ben-weed on Halloween night, he would surely be taken by the 'little people'. Many parents for protection, would rub a mixture of dry oatmeal and salt into the hair of the child going out on Halloween night. Babies were also in danger, since it was known that fairies would steal them and replace it with a fairy child, or a 'stock'. The stock sometimes had the appearance of a tiny; old, bearded man who never aged; or the baby might look normal, but would quickly get sick and die. A way to protect a baby on Halloween night would be by placing something of iron in or over the baby's crib. To find out if a fairy child was present, would be boiling eggshells in its presence; this would cause the child to utter an adult exclamation and let out its true identity (Morton, 2012).


The good fairies were often fond of carrying attractive adult humans, who would mostly only be rescued on Halloween. The ballad of Tamlane is the classic example of this, Sir Walter Scott records (in the introduction of Tamlane) the tale of a Lothian farmer whose wife was stolen by fairies, and who appeared to him many times for a year after her kidnapping, telling him how to rescue her in the coming Halloween night. Unfortunately the farmer was not able to rescue his wife on that Halloween night because of the unearthly sound of the fairy troupe and the mournful frightening cries of his wife as she passed him by one last time before being lost forever that would only make the farmer stay paralyzed and helpless.

Brave humans used the Halloween power of fairies for their own ends. One story that well exemplifies this is the story of 'Guleesh Na Guss Dhu', an Irish legend.

Guleesh joins a group of fairies on Halloween night on a magical ride to France, were the fairies beg Guleesh's help in kidnapping a beautiful princess before her wedding. I do not want too tell you the whole story but you are welcome to read it by going to the link below to read the whole story. I read it and it is great, I like the whole story idea of Guleesh going to the fairy realm and saving the princess from her sad fate of having to marry someone she did not truly love.

The beautiful princess sad about her marrying a men she did not love.
The beautiful princess sad about her marrying a men she did not love.
Guleesh with his magical horse and the group of fairies on their way to France.
Guleesh with his magical horse and the group of fairies on their way to France.
Guleesh rescuing the princess from her unwanted marriage and danger.
Guleesh rescuing the princess from her unwanted marriage and danger.

Celtic Folk and Fairy Tale Stories


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