A fairy (fey or fae; collectively wee folk, good folk, people of peace, among others) is a spirit or supernatural being, based on the fae of medieval Western European (Old French) folklore and romance. Even in folklore that uses the term "fairy," there are many definitions of what constitutes a fairy. Sometimes the term is used to describe any mystical creature of humanoid appearance, including goblins or gnomes, and at other times only to describe a specific type of more ethereal creature. Many folktales are told of fairies, and they appear as characters in stories from medieval tales of chivalry, to Victorian fairy tales, and up to the present day in modern literature.
While many of these depictions are considered purely fictional, creatures such as fairies, somewhat like human beings but with abilities that transcend the physical realm, find correlates in the angels or other spiritual beings of many religions. When a belief in the afterlife and the realm of spirit are accepted, the existence of beings that have such "supernatural" abilities becomes possible. Thus, it may be that the origin of such creatures lies not so much in the desire of human beings to experience all that the physical world has to offer (as with many chimeras), but rather in fleeting experiences of creatures from the spiritual realm.
Fairies are generally portrayed as humanoid in appearance and as having supernatural abilities such as the ability to fly, cast spells, and to influence or foresee the future. Although in modern culture they are often depicted as young, sometimes winged, females of small stature, they originally were depicted much differently: Tall, radiant, angelic beings or short, wizened trolls being some of the commonly mentioned. Even with these small fairies, however, their small size may be magically assumed rather than constant. Wings, while common in Victorian artwork of fairies, are very rare in the folklore; even very small fairies flew with magic, sometimes flying on ragwort stems or the backs of birds.
The English word "fairy" is derived from the Old French faerie, which was derivative of the root fae (The English root form is fay). Originally, fae was the creature and faerie was the land of the fays. In modern times, both spellings, faerie and fairy, are commonly interchanged in English.
Origin of fairies
Because of the widespread account of fairies, and the differing versions of their nature, the exact origin of belief in fairies is unclear. There are numerous suggestions for both the cause of the tradition and the cultural stories of fairy origins. One theory for the source of fairy beliefs was that a race of diminutive people had once lived in the Celtic nations and British Isles, but had been driven into hiding by invading humans. They came to be seen as another race, or possibly spirits, and were believed to live in an Otherworld that was variously described as existing underground, in hidden hills (many of which were ancient burial mounds), or across the Western Sea.
Some archaeologists attributed Elfland to small dwellings or underground chambers where diminutive people might have once lived. In popular folklore, flint arrowheads from the Stone Age were attributed to the fairies as "elf-shot." The fairies' fear of iron was attributed to the invaders having iron weapons, whereas the inhabitants had only flint and were therefore easily defeated in physical battle. Their green clothing and underground homes were credited to their need to hide and camouflage themselves from hostile humans, and their use of magic a necessary skill for combating those with superior weaponry.
In Victorian beliefs of evolution, cannibalism among "ogres" was attributed to memories of more savage races, still practicing it alongside "superior" races that had abandoned it. Selkies, described in fairy tales as shape-shifting seal people, were attributed to memories of skin-clad "primitive" people traveling in kayaks. African pygmies were put forth as an example of a race that had previously existed over larger stretches of territory, but come to be scarce and semi-mythical with the passage of time and prominence of other tribes and races.
From a cultural standpoint, there are many origins for fairies. One theory is that the fairies were originally worshiped as gods, but with the coming of Christianity, they lived on, in a dwindled state of power, in folk belief. Many beings who are described as deities in older tales are described as "fairies" in more recent writings. Victorian explanations of mythology, which accounted for all gods as metaphors for natural events that had come to be taken literally, explained them as metaphors for the night sky and stars.
After the introduction of Christianity into Europe, there were those that believed fairies were at one time angels, who had either fallen from grace or were good, but not good enough to be allowed in Heaven. This belief became much more popular with the growth of Puritanism. The hobgoblin, once a friendly household spirit, became a wicked goblin. Dealing with fairies was in some cases considered a form of witchcraft and was punished as such.
Some contributed fairies to a folkloric belief concerning the dead. This noted many common points of belief, such as the same legends being told of ghosts and fairies, the Sidhe mounds in actuality being burial mounds, it being dangerous to eat food in both Fairyland and Hades, and both the dead and fairies living underground. The banshee, with an Irish or Gaelic name that means simply, "fairy woman," is sometimes described as a ghost or as a harbinger of death. The Cauld Lad of Hylton, though described as a murdered boy, is also described as a household sprite, like a brownie. Another view held that they were an intelligent species, distinct from both humans and angels.
The question as to the essential nature of fairies has been the topic of myths, stories, and scholarly papers for a very long time. Just as there are numerous variations in the origin of the creature, so to are there many variations on what fairies are. Below is a list of the most basic and popular variations of fairies.
Fairies have often been noted for their mischief and malice. Some pranks ascribed to them, such as tangling the hair of sleepers into "Elf-locks," stealing small items, or leading a traveler astray, are generally harmless. But far more dangerous behaviors were also attributed to fairies. Any form of sudden death might stem from a fairy kidnapping, with the apparent corpse being a wooden stand-in with the appearance of the kidnapped person. Consumption (tuberculosis) was sometimes blamed on the fairies forcing young men and women to dance at revels every night, causing them to waste away from lack of rest. Fairies riding domestic animals, such as cows, could cause paralysis or mysterious illnesses.
Due to belief in fairies as tricksters, a considerable lore developed regarding ways to protect oneself from their mischief: While many fairies will confuse travelers on the path, the will o' the wisp can be avoided by not following it. Certain locations, known to be haunts of fairies, are to be avoided. In particular, digging in fairy hills was unwise. Paths that the fairies travel are also wise to avoid. Home-owners have knocked corners from houses because the corner blocked the fairy path, and cottages have been built with the front and back doors in line, so that the owners could, in need, leave them both open and let the fairies troop through all night. It is often believed that pixies and brownies fall into this category.
A common thread in folklore is that eating the fairy food would trap the captive, as Prosperina in Hades. This warning is often given to captives by other people in the fairies' power, who are often described as captives who had eaten and so could not be freed. Folklore differed about the state of the captives: Some held that they lived a merry life, others that they always pined for their old friends. Changelings are often associated with goblins, and some believe that goblins are in fact scared, disfigured fairies that have fallen from grace.
The ethereal spirit is the most common depiction of fairies in contemporary times. Small, angelic beings that live in forests, posses magical abilities and wings, these types of fairies are often associated with nymphs. Such creatures are usually benign, if not playful and flirtatious. Often they are protectors of nature, are wise and helpful to humans, and sometimes are even sexually attracted to male humans.
Not as popular as the other types, but still significant, is the belief that fairies represent elemental forces. The alchemist Paracelsus is credited with assigning certain creatures of folklore and legend as representations of elementals. Fairies were one such designation, representative of the ethereal and changeable. Corresponding to this, but in different ways, were such beings as gnomes and sylphs.
A considerable amount of lore about fairies revolves about changelings, the theft of a human baby and the substitution of a fairy one or an enchanted piece of wood, and preventing a baby from being abducted. Older people could also be abducted; a woman who had just given birth and had yet to be churched was regarded as being in particular danger.
Fairies appeared in medieval romances as one of the beings that a knight errant might encounter. A fairy lady appeared to Sir Launfal and demanded his love; like the fairy bride of ordinary folklore, she imposed a prohibition on him that in time he violated. Sir Orfeo's wife was carried off by the King of Faeries. Huon of Bordeaux is aided by King Oberon.
These fairy characters dwindled in number as the medieval era progressed; the figures became wizards and enchantresses. Morgan Le Fey in Le Morte d'Arthur, whose connection to the realm of faerie is implied in her name, is a woman whose magic powers stem from study. While somewhat diminished with time, fairies never completely vanished from the tradition. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a late tale, but the Green Knight himself is an otherworldly being. Edmund Spenser featured fairies in The Faerie Queen. In many works of fiction, fairies are freely mixed with the nymphs and satyrs of classical tradition; while in others (such as Lamia), they were seen as displacing the Classical beings.
The smaller but harmless sorts of fairies were used by William Shakespeare in A Midsummer's Night Dream, and Michael Drayton in his Nimphidia; from these stem Alexander Pope's sylphs of The Rape of the Lock, and eventually the Victorian flower fairies, with the fairies becoming prettier and smaller as time progressed.
The précieuses took up the oral tradition of such tales to write fairy tales; Madame d'Aulnoy invented the term contes de fée ("fairy tale"). While the tales told by the précieuses included many fairies, they were less common in other countries' tales; indeed, the Brothers Grimm included fairies in their first edition, but decided this was not authentically German and altered the language in later editions, changing each "Fee" (fairy) to an enchantress or wise woman. Also, not all folktales that feature fairies are categorized as fairy tales.
Fairies in literature took on new life with Romanticism. Writers such as Sir Walter Scott and James Hogg were inspired by folklore which featured fairies, such as the Border ballads. This era saw an increase in the popularity of collecting of fairy folklore, and an increase in the creation of original works with fairy characters. In Rudyard Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill, Puck holds to scorn the moralizing fairies of other Victorian works.The period also saw a revival of older themes in fantasy literature, such as C.S. Lewis's Narnia books which, while featuring many such classical beings as fauns and dryads, mingles them freely with hags, giants, and other creatures of the folkloric fairy tradition.
Fairies in art
Fairies have been numerously illustrated in books of fairy tales and sometimes as standalone works of art and sculpture. Some artists known for their depictions of fairies include Alan Lee, Amy Brown, Arthur Rackham, Brian Froud, Cicely Mary Barker, Warwick Goble, Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, Myrea Pettit, Kylie InGold, Jessica Galbreth, David Delamare, Richard de Chazal in his Four Seasons series of photographs, and Josephine Wall.
The Victorian era was particularly noted for fairy paintings. The Victorian painter Richard Dadd created paintings of fairy-folk with a sinister and malicious tone. Other Victorian artists who depicted fairies include John Atkinson Grimshaw, Joseph Noel Paton, John Anster Fitzgerald, and Daniel Maclise.
Interest in fairy themed art enjoyed a brief renaissance following the publication of the Cottingley fairies photographs in 1917, a number of artists turned to painting fairy themes. The Cottingley fairies series of photographs were taken by two girls who originally claimed that they showed actual fairies but later admitted they were fakes, except possibly the fifth photo. Following in the footsteps of the Cottingley fairies and utilizing modern digital technology, fantasy photographers like artist J. Corsentino created a new sub-genre of "fairy photography."
Fairies in modern culture and film
Fairies are often depicted in books, stories, and movies. A number of these fairies are from adaptations of traditional tales. Perhaps some of the most well-known fairies were popularized by Walt Disney, including Tinkerbell, from the Peter Pan stories by J.M. Barrie. In Carlo Collodi's tale Pinocchio, a wooden boy receives the gift of real life from a "lovely maiden with azure hair," who was dubbed the "Blue Fairy" for Disney's adaptation.
As would be expected, fairies appear in other media as well, including novels, video games, and music. A notable example is Susanna Clark's novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which revolved about two magicians with close connections to the fairy world; it won the Hugo Award for Best Novel. Clark drew heavily on British folklore for this work and her collection of short stories The Ladies of Grace Adieu, including retelling the story of Tom Tit Tot in her "On Lickerish Hill."
- Dictionary.com, www.dictionary.com Fairy. Retrieved July 26, 2007.
- Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford Press 1979). ISBN 019861117X
- Carole B. Silver, Strange and Secret Peoples: Fairies and Victorian Consciousness (Oxford University Press 1999). ISBN 0195121006
- Jane Yolen, Touch Magic, p.49. ISBN 0-87483-591-7
- Brian Froud and Alan Lee, Faeries (New York, Peacock Press, 1978). ISBN 0-553-01159-6
- Katharine Mary Briggs, An Encyclopedia of Fairies (New York: Pantheon Books, 1976). ISBN 039473467X
- Cottinglyconnect.org, Cottingley Fairies. Retrieved September 19, 2007.
- Margaret Dean, The Faerie Chronicles. Retrieved February 19, 2007.
- Susanna Clarke, The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories, p 62. ISBN 1-59691-251-0
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Briggs, Katharine Mary. An Encyclopedia of Fairies. New York: Pantheon Books, 1976. ISBN 039473467X
- Ashliman, D.L. Fairy Lore: A Handbook. Greenwood, 2006. ISBN 0313333491
- Dubois, Pierre. The Great Encyclopedia Of Faeries. Simon and Schuster, 2000. ISBN 0684869578
- Eason, Cassandra. A Complete Guide to Faeries & Magical Beings: Explore the Mystical Realm of the Little People. Red Wheel/Weiser, 2002. ISBN 1578632676
- Evans-Wentz, W.Y. The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries. New Page Books, 2004. ISBN 978-1564147080
- Froud, Brian and Alan Lee. Faeries. New York: Peacock Press, 2002 (original 1978). ISBN 1862055580
- Henderson, L. and E.J. Cowan. Scottish Fairy Belief. Tuckwell Press, Ltd, 2001. ISBN 1862321906
- Keightley, Thomas. The World Guide to Gnomes, Fairies, Elves & Other Little People. Gramercy, 2000. ISBN 0517263130
- Lewis, C. S. The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature. 1964.
- Lysaght, Patricia. The Banshee: the Irish Supernatural Death Messenger. Glendale Press, Dublin, 1986. ISBN 0907606296
- Narvaez, Peter. The Good People, New Fairylore Essays. New York: Garland, 1997 (original 1991). ISBN 0813109396
- Pocs, Eva. Fairies and Witches at the Boundary of South-Eastern and Central Europe. FFC no 243. Helsinki, 1989.
- Purkiss, Diane. Troublesome Things: A History of Fairies and Fairy Stories. Allen Lane, 2000.
- Silver, Carole B. Strange and Secret Peoples: Fairies and Victorian Consciousness. Oxford University Press, 1999. ISBN 978-0195144116
- Tomkinson, John L. Haunted Greece: Nymphs, Vampires, and other Exotika. Anagnosis, 2004. ISBN 960-88087-0-7 Retrieved June 28, 2022.
All links retrieved March 25, 2017.
- Audio recording of a traditional fairy story from Newfoundland, Canada (streaming and downloadable formats)
- The Faerie Chronicles
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