Similar Creatures Elf, Pixie, Sprite
|Mythological Origin Europe|
|Abilities Has magical powers, Possesses diminutive intelligence|
Groupings legendary creature, Pixie, Sprite, Tuatha Dé Danann
A fairy (also fay, fae, fair folk; from faery, faerie, "realm of the fays") is a type of mythical being or Legendary creature in European folklore, a form of spirit, often described as metaphysical, supernatural, or preternatural.
- 5 true fairy scary stories
- Historical development
- Christian mythology
- Demoted pagan deities
- Spirits of the dead
- A hidden people
- Tuatha Dé Danann
- Aos Sí
- Protective charms
- In art
- Cottingley Fairies
5 true fairy scary stories
According to Thomas Keightley, the word "fairy" derives from the Latin fata, and is from the Old French form faerie, describing "enchantment". Other forms are the Italian fata, and the Provençal "fada". In Old French romance, "fee" was a woman skilled in magic, and who knew the power and virtue of words, of stones, and of herbs.
Faie became Modern English fay. Faierie became fairy, but with that spelling now almost exclusively referring to one of the legendary people, with the same meaning as fay. The word "fairy" was used to represent an illusion, or enchantment; the land of the Faes; collectively the inhabitants thereof; or an individual such as a fairy knight.
To the word faie was added the suffix -erie (Modern English -(e)ry), used to express either a place where something is found (fishery, nunnery) or a trade or typical activity engaged in (cookery, thievery). In later usage it generally applied to any kind of quality or activity associated with a particular type of person, as in English knavery, roguery, wizardry. In the sense "land where fairies dwell", the distinctive and archaic spellings Faery and Faerie are often used.
Sometimes the term fairy is used to describe any magical creature, including goblins or gnomes: at other times, the term describes only a specific type of more ethereal creature or sprite. The concept of "fairy" in the narrow sense is unique to English folklore, conflating Germanic elves with influences from Celtic and Romance (French) folklores, and later made "diminutive" according to the tastes of Victorian era "fairy tales" for children.
Fairies have their historical origin in the conflation of Celtic (Breton, Welsh) traditions in the Middle French medieval romances. Fairie was in origin used adjectivally, meaning "enchanted" (as in fairie knight, fairie queene), but was used as a name for "enchanted" creatures from as early as the Late Middle English period. In English literature of the Elizabethan era, elves became conflated with the fairies of Romance culture, so that the two terms began to be used interchangeably.
The Victorian and Edwardian eras saw an increase in interest in fairies. The Celtic Revival viewed them as part of Ireland's cultural heritage. Carole Silvers and others suggest that the fascination of English antiquarians arose from a reaction to greater industrialization, and loss of folkways.
Fairies are generally described as human in appearance and having magical powers. Diminutive fairies of one kind or another have been recorded for centuries, but occur alongside the human-sized beings; these have been depicted as ranging in size from very tiny up to the size of a human child. Even with these small fairies, however, their small size may be magically assumed rather than constant. Some fairies though normally quite small were able to dilate their figures to imitate humans. On Orkney they were described as short in stature, dressed in dark grey, and sometimes seen in armour.
Wings, while common in Victorian and later 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. Nowadays, fairies are often depicted with ordinary insect wings or butterfly wings. In some folklore, fairies have green eyes. Some depictions of fairies either have them wearing some sort of footwear and other depictions of fairies are always barefoot.
The early modern fairies do not have any single origin, representing a conflation of disparate elements of folk belief, influenced by literature and speculation. Their origins are less clear in the folklore, being variously dead, or some form of demon, or a species completely independent of humans or angels. The folkloristic or mythological elements combine Celtic, Germanic and Greco-Roman elements. Folklorists have suggested that their actual origin lies in religious beliefs that lost currency with the advent of Christianity. These explanations are not necessarily incompatible, and they may be traceable to multiple sources.
According to King James in his dissertation Daemonologie, the term "faries" was used to describe illusory spirits (demonic entities) that prophesy, consort, and transport individuals they served. In medieval times, it was believed that a witch or sorcerer who had a compact with a familiar spirit to serve them could receive these types of revelations or use them to perform various tasks.
One other Christian belief held that fairies were a class of "demoted" angels. One popular story described how, when the angels revolted, God ordered the gates of heaven shut: those still in heaven remained angels, those in hell became demons, and those caught in between became fairies. Others suggested that the fairies, not being good enough, had been thrown out of heaven, but they were not evil enough for hell. This may explain the tradition that they had to pay a "teind" or tithe to hell: as fallen angels, though not quite devils, they could be seen as subjects of the devil. For a similar concept in Persian mythology, see Peri.
Demoted pagan deities
Another incorrect theory is that the fairies were originally worshiped as minor goddesses, such as nymphs or tree spirits, but with the coming of Christianity, they lived on, in a dwindled state of power, in folk belief. In this particular time, fairies were reputed by the church as being 'evil' beings. Many beings who are described as deities in older tales are described as "fairies" in invented Victorian writings. Victorian inventions 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. This entire Victorian view has been debunked and refuted and is now considered by scholars an antiquated and incorrect view.
Yet another belief was that the fairies were demons entirely. 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 punished as such in this era. Disassociating himself from such evils may be why Oberon, in A Midsummer Night's Dream, carefully observed that neither he nor his court feared the church bells.
Spirits of the dead
One popular belief was that they were the dead. This noted that many common points of belief, such as the same legends being told of ghosts and fairies, the sídhe in actuality being burial mounds, it being dangerous to eat food in both Fairyland and Hades, and both the dead and fairies living underground. Diane Purkiss observes an equating of fairies with the untimely dead who left "unfinished lives". One tale recounted a man caught by the fairies, who found that whenever he looked steadily at one, the fairy was a dead neighbor of his. This was among the most common beliefs expressed by those who believed in fairies, although many of the informants would express the belief with some doubts.
A hidden people
At one time it was a common belief that fairy folklore evolved from folk memories of a prehistoric race. It was suggested that newcomers drove out the original inhabitants, and the memories of this defeated, hidden people developed into the fairy beliefs we have today. Proponents of this theory claimed to find support in the tradition of cold iron as a charm against the fairies, which was viewed as a cultural memory of invaders with iron weapons displacing inhabitants who had only flint and were therefore easily defeated. Some 19th-century archaeologists thought they had found underground rooms in the Orkney islands resembling the Elfland in Childe Rowland. However the idea of a fallen vanquished race in hiding has fallen out of favour with scholars.
In popular folklore, flint arrowheads from the Stone Age were attributed to the fairies as "elf-shot". 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.
Another belief is that the fairies were an intelligent species, distinct from humans and angels. In alchemy in particular they were regarded as elementals, such as gnomes and sylphs, as described by Paracelsus. This is uncommon in folklore, but accounts describing the fairies as "spirits of the air" have been found. The belief in their angelic nature was common in Theosophist circles.
Tuatha Dé Danann
The Tuath(a) Dé Danann are a race of supernaturally-gifted people in Irish mythology. They are thought to represent the main deities of pre-Christian Gaelic Ireland. Many of the Irish tales of the Tuatha Dé Danann refer to these beings as fairies, though in more ancient times they were regarded as goddesses and gods. The Tuatha Dé Danann were spoken of as having come from islands in the north of the world or, in other sources, from the sky. After being defeated in a series of battles with other otherworldly beings, and then by the ancestors of the current Irish people, they were said to have withdrawn to the sídhe (fairy mounds), where they lived on in popular imagination as "fairies."
They are associated with several Otherworld realms including Mag Mell (the Pleasant Plain), Emain Ablach (the Fortress of Apples or the Land of Promise or the Isle of Women), and Tir na nÓg (the Land of Youth).
The aos sí is the Irish term for a supernatural race in Irish and Scottish, comparable to the fairies or elves. They are variously said to be ancestors, the spirits of nature, or goddesses and gods. A common theme found among the Celtic nations describes a race of diminutive people who had been driven into hiding by invading humans. In old Celtic fairy lore the Aos Sí (fairy folk) are immortals living in the ancient barrows and cairns. The Irish banshee (Irish Gaelic bean sí or Scottish Gaelic bean shìth, which both mean "woman of the fairy mound") is sometimes described as a ghost.
These Siths or Fairies they call Sleagh Maith or the Good People...are said to be of middle nature between Man and Angel, as were Daemons thought to be of old; of intelligent fluidous Spirits, and light changeable bodies (lyke those called Astral) somewhat of the nature of a condensed cloud, and best seen in twilight. These bodies be so pliable through the sublety of Spirits that agitate them, that they can make them appear or disappear at pleasure
Much of the folklore about fairies revolves around protection from their malice, by such means as cold iron or charms of rowan and herbs, or avoiding offense by shunning locations known to be theirs. 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. Rowan trees are considered sacred to the fairies.
In Scottish folklore, fairies are divided into the Seelie Court, the more beneficently inclined (but still dangerous) fairies, and the Unseelie Court, the malicious fairies. While the fairies from the Seelie court enjoyed playing pranks on humans they were usually harmless affairs, compared to the Unseelie court that enjoyed bringing harm to humans as entertainment.
Trooping fairies refer to fairies who appear in groups and might form settlements. In this definition, fairy is usually understood in a wider sense, as the term can also include various kinds of mythical creatures mainly of Celtic origin; however, the term might also be used for similar beings such as dwarves or elves from Germanic folklore. These are opposed to solitary fairies, who do not live or associate with others of their kind.
A considerable amount of lore about fairies revolves around changelings, fairy children left in the place of stolen human babies. In particular, folklore describes how to prevent the fairies from stealing babies and substituting changelings, and abducting older people as well. The theme of the swapped child is common in medieval literature and reflects concern over infants thought to be afflicted with unexplained diseases, disorders, or developmental disabilities. In pre-industrial Europe, a peasant family's subsistence frequently depended upon the productive labor of each member, and a person who was a permanent drain on the family's scarce resources could pose a threat to the survival of the entire family.
In terms of protective charms, wearing clothing inside out, church bells, St. John's wort, and four-leaf clovers are regarded as effective. In Newfoundland folklore, the most popular type of fairy protection is bread, varying from stale bread to hard tack or a slice of fresh home-made bread. Bread is associated with the home and the hearth, as well as with industry and the taming of nature, and as such, seems to be disliked by some types of fairies. On the other hand, in much of the Celtic folklore, baked goods are a traditional offering to the folk, as are cream and butter. “The prototype of food, and therefore a symbol of life, bread was one of the commonest protections against fairies. Before going out into a fairy-haunted place, it was customary to put a piece of dry bread in one’s pocket.” In County Wexford, Ireland, in 1882, it was reported that “if an infant is carried out after dark a piece of bread is wrapped in its bib or dress, and this protects it from any witchcraft or evil.”
Bells also have an ambiguous role; while they protect against fairies, the fairies riding on horseback — such as the Fairy Queen — often have bells on their harness. This may be a distinguishing trait between the Seelie Court from the Unseelie Court, such that fairies use them to protect themselves from more wicked members of their race. Another ambiguous piece of folklore revolves about poultry: a cock's crow drove away fairies, but other tales recount fairies keeping poultry.
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; C. S. Lewis reported hearing of a cottage more feared for its reported fairies than its reported ghost. 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. Locations such as fairy forts were left undisturbed; even cutting brush on fairy forts was reputed to be the death of those who performed the act. Fairy trees, such as thorn trees, were dangerous to chop down; one such tree was left alone in Scotland, though it prevented a road being widened for seventy years.
Other actions were believed to offend fairies. Brownies were known to be driven off by being given clothing, though some folktales recounted that they were offended by inferior quality of the garments given, and others merely stated it, some even recounting that the brownie was delighted with the gift and left with it. Other brownies left households or farms because they heard a complaint, or a compliment. People who saw the fairies were advised not to look closely, because they resented infringements on their privacy. The need to not offend them could lead to problems: one farmer found that fairies threshed his corn, but the threshing continued after all his corn was gone, and he concluded that they were stealing from his neighbors, leaving him the choice between offending them, dangerous in itself, and profiting by the theft.
Millers were thought by the Scots to be "no canny", owing to their ability to control the forces of nature, such as fire in the kiln, water in the burn, and for being able to set machinery a-whirring. Superstitious communities sometimes believed that the miller must be in league with the fairies. In Scotland, fairies were often mischievous and to be feared. No one dared to set foot in the mill or kiln at night, as it was known that the fairies brought their corn to be milled after dark. So long as the locals believed this, the miller could sleep secure in the knowledge that his stores were not being robbed. John Fraser, the miller of Whitehill, claimed to have hidden and watched the fairies trying unsuccessfully to work the mill. He said he decided to come out of hiding and help them, upon which one of the fairy women gave him a gowpen (double handful of meal) and told him to put it in his empty girnal (store), saying that the store would remain full for a long time, no matter how much he took out.
It is also believed that to know the name of a particular fairy could summon it to you and force it to do your bidding. The name could be used as an insult towards the fairy in question, but it could also rather contradictorily be used to grant powers and gifts to the user.
Before the advent of modern medicine, many physiological conditions were untreatable and when children were born with abnormalities, it was common to blame the fairies.
Sometimes fairies are described as assuming the guise of an animal. In Scotland it was peculiar to the fairy women to assume the shape of deer; while witches became mice, hares, cats, gulls, or black sheep. In the "The Legend of Knocksheogowna", in order to frighten a farmer who pastured his herd on fairy ground, a fairy queen took on the appearance of a great horse, with the wings of an eagle, and a tail like a dragon, hissing loud and spitting fire. Then she would change into a little man lame of a leg, with a bull's head, and a lambent flame playing round it.
In the 19th-century child ballad "Lady Isabel and the Elf-Knight", the elf-knight is a Bluebeard figure, and Isabel must trick and kill him to preserve her life. Child ballad "Tam Lin" reveals that the title character, though living among the fairies and having fairy powers, was in fact an "earthly knight" and though his life was pleasant now, he feared that the fairies would pay him as their teind (tithe) to hell.
"Sir Orfeo" tells how Sir Orfeo's wife was kidnapped by the King of Faerie and only by trickery and excellent harping ability was he able to win her back. "Sir Degare" narrates the tale of a woman overcome by her fairy lover, who in later versions of the story is unmasked as a mortal. "Thomas the Rhymer" shows Thomas escaping with less difficulty, but he spends seven years in Elfland. Oisín is harmed not by his stay in Faerie but by his return; when he dismounts, the three centuries that have passed catch up with him, reducing him to an aged man. King Herla (O.E. "Herla cyning"), originally a guise of Woden but later Christianised as a king in a tale by Walter Map, was said, by Map, to have visited a dwarf's underground mansion and returned three centuries later; although only some of his men crumbled to dust on dismounting, Herla and his men who did not dismount were trapped on horseback, this being one account of the origin of the Wild Hunt of European folklore.
A common feature of the fairies is the use of magic to disguise appearance. Fairy gold is notoriously unreliable, appearing as gold when paid but soon thereafter revealing itself to be leaves, gorse blossoms, gingerbread cakes, or a variety of other comparatively worthless things.
These illusions are also implicit in the tales of fairy ointment. Many tales from Northern Europe tell of a mortal woman summoned to attend a fairy birth — sometimes attending a mortal, kidnapped woman's childbed. Invariably, the woman is given something for the child's eyes, usually an ointment; through mischance, or sometimes curiosity, she uses it on one or both of her own eyes. At that point, she sees where she is; one midwife realizes that she was not attending a great lady in a fine house but her own runaway maid-servant in a wretched cave. She escapes without making her ability known but sooner or later betrays that she can see the fairies. She is invariably blinded in that eye or in both if she used the ointment on both.
There have been claims by people in the past, like William Blake, to have seen fairy funerals. Allan Cunningham in his Lives of Eminent British Painters records that William Blake claimed to have seen a fairy funeral. "'Did you ever see a fairy's funeral, madam?' said Blake to a lady who happened to sit next to him. 'Never, sir!' said the lady. 'I have,' said Blake, 'but not before last night.' And he went on to tell how, in his garden, he had seen 'a procession of creatures of the size and colour of green and grey grasshoppers, bearing a body laid out on a rose-leaf, which they buried with songs, and then disappeared." They are believed to be an omen of death.
The word "fairy" was used to describe an individual inhabitant of Faerie before the time of Chaucer.
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 Faerie. 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.
The oldest fairies on record in England were first described by the historian Gervase of Tilbury in the 13th century.
Morgan le Fay, whose connection to the realm of Faerie is implied in her name, in Le Morte d'Arthur 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 Queene. In many works of fiction, fairies are freely mixed with the nymphs and satyrs of classical tradition, while in others (e.g., Lamia), they were seen as displacing the Classical beings. 15th-century poet and monk John Lydgate wrote that King Arthur was crowned in "the land of the fairy" and taken in his death by four fairy queens, to Avalon, where he lies under a "fairy hill", until he is needed again.
Fairies appear as significant characters in William Shakespeare's A Midsummer's Night Dream, which is set simultaneously in the woodland and in the realm of Fairyland, under the light of the moon and in which a disturbance of nature caused by a fairy dispute creates tension underlying the plot and informing the actions of the characters. According to Maurice Hunt, Chair of the English Department at Baylor University, the blurring of the identities of fantasy and reality makes possible “that pleasing, narcotic dreaminess associated with the fairies of the play”.
Shakespeare's contemporary Michael Drayton features fairies in his Nimphidia; from these stem Alexander Pope's sylphs of The Rape of the Lock, and in the mid-17th century, 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. J. R. R. Tolkien described these tales as taking place in the land of Faerie. Additionally, not all folktales that feature fairies are generally categorized as fairy tales.
The modern depiction of fairies was shaped in the literature of Romanticism during the Victorian era. Writers such as 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. Victorian flower fairies were popularized in part by Queen Mary’s keen interest in fairy art and by British illustrator and poet Cicely Mary Barker's series of eight books published in 1923 through 1948. Imagery of fairies in literature became prettier and smaller as time progressed. Andrew Lang, complaining of "the fairies of polyanthuses and gardenias and apple blossoms" in the introduction to The Lilac Fairy Book, observed that "These fairies try to be funny, and fail; or they try to preach, and succeed."
A story of the origin of fairies appears in a chapter about Peter Pan in J. M. Barrie's 1902 novel The Little White Bird, and was incorporated into his later works about the character. Barrie wrote, "When the first baby laughed for the first time, his laugh broke into a million pieces, and they all went skipping about. That was the beginning of fairies." Fairies are seen in Neverland, in Peter and Wendy, the novel version of J. M. Barrie's famous Peter Pan stories, published in 1911, and its character Tinker Bell has become a pop culture icon. When Peter Pan is guarding Wendy from pirates, the story says, "After a time he fell asleep, and some unsteady fairies had to climb over him on their way home from an orgy. Any of the other boys obstructing the fairy path at night they would have mischiefed, but they just tweaked Peter's nose and passed on."
Images of fairies have appeared as illustrations, often in books of fairy tales, as well as in photographic-based media and sculpture. Some artists known for their depictions of fairies include Cicely Mary Barker, Arthur Rackham, Brian Froud, Alan Lee, Amy Brown, David Delamare, Meredith Dillman, Jasmine Becket-Griffith, Warwick Goble, Kylie InGold, Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, Myrea Pettit, Florence Harrison, Suza Scalora, Nene Thomas, Gustave Doré, Rebecca Guay and Greta James.
The Fairy Doors of Ann Arbor, MI are small doors installed into local buildings. Local children believe these are the front doors of fairy houses, and in some cases, small furniture, dishes, and various other things can be seen beyond the doors.
The Victorian era was particularly noted for fairy paintings. The Victorian painter Richard Dadd created paintings of fairy-folk with a sinister and malign 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 and a number of artists turned to painting fairy themes.
The Cottingley Fairies photographs in 1917 (revealed by the "photographers" in 1981 to have been faked) were originally publicized by Theosophists, many of whom believed them to be real. In the teachings of Theosophy, Devas, the equivalent of angels, are believed to help to guide the operation of the processes of nature such as the process of evolution and the growth of plants. Smaller, less important, evolutionarily undeveloped minor angels are called nature spirits, elementals, and fairies.
E. L. Gardner likened fairies to butterflies, but whose function was to provide an essential link between the energy of the sun and plants in order to stimulate growth. "That growth of a plant which we regard as the customary and inevitable result of associating the three factors of sun, seed, and soil would never take place if the fairy builders were absent." He described them as having "...no clean-cut shape normally, and one can only describe them as small, hazy, and somewhat luminous clouds of colour with a brighter spark-like nucleus."