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Magical, mysterious, and mischievous, fairies never fail to enchant us. But what are they really? Most people consider fairies the products of human imagination—cartoon characters in animated movies or charming creatures in stories we read to children at bedtime—and unless you’re under the age of six, you probably don’t believe they exist.
Or, if you’re into fantasy games, you might think of fairies as personae you can assume in order to engage in mock battles with other pseudo-fairies. But if you delve a little deeper, you’ll discover that all sorts of fanciful folk have populated the fairy world for thousands of years—and they’re as diverse as the animal species who inhabit our planet.
Back in the days when life was much more mysterious and people believed in an enchanted world, mortals feared offending the fairies who might cast spells or inflict curses on a whim. Calling a powerful supernatural being by its real name was considered disrespectful, so humans referred to fairies in euphemistic terms such as the Good People, the Gentry, the Shining Ones, and the Neighbors. The English word “fairy” (or faery) may have come from the Latin fatum, meaning fate, as did the French derivative fée, the Italian fata, and the Spanish fada. Middle English used the term faierie (faeire in Old French) to refer to the land of enchantment and its inhabitants; today we call it Faerie. Of course, each culture not only had its own names for fairies, it also recognized various types of fairies.
Many folklorists believe that fairies descended from ancient gods and goddesses. For thousands of years, these deities had dominion over the earth, the heavens, and all the inhabitants therein. They governed day and night, land and water, the seasons, the growth of plants, wild and domestic animals—just about everything. Their all-encompassing powers made them awesome beings indeed, and people in virtually every culture around the world worshipped some sort of divine ruler(s). But the rise of Christianity coincided with the decline of many early gods and goddesses. The Church not only discouraged belief in the old ways, it persecuted people who clung to them. Legend tells us that when people stopped honoring and paying homage to the old gods and goddesses, their powers began to wane. Consequently, some deities were demoted to mythical beings—including fairies. This development didn’t exactly please the fairies, which might be why they play tricks on humans.
Fairies can be of benevolent or malevolent, exerting good or bad influences over the lives of humans. They are as diverse in personality as they are in appearance. They come in all habits and tempers. Some fairies are helpful. They guide travelers who are lost in the forest back towards home. They help with household chores, often going to work overnight, so that their hosts wake up to a happy surprise. If they are particularly fond of you, they might even lead you to treasure, give you magical gifts, help you win your true love’s hand in marriage, or cast a lucky charm over your life. If you’re hoping to gain a fairy as a friend, leave a saucer of milk, cream, butter, or ale for the fey people to enjoy at night. If you do this on a regular basis, you might be rewarded!
Others are mischievous. They delight in misleading travelers or luring them into exhausting dances that go one for days. They also like to taunt domestic animals, pinching horses to make them gallop, stealing milk from cows, and playing cat-and-mouse with cats.
And then there are some fairies who are dangerous—so dangerous that, for centuries, they were called “the good folk,” “the little people,” or “the neighbors” because people were too afraid of them to say their name aloud. These fairies usually live in hierarchies, where the king or queen is the most dangerous of all. They don’t just get travelers lost; they lead them into deadly bogs. When they take a liking to a human baby, they don’t cast a charm over its life. They steal it from its cradle and replace it with a sickly “changeling.” And if they ever share their dances or treasure with you, be sure that the gift comes with a curse. The most dangerous fairies can declare ware over small disputes. Fortunately, they are more likely to go to war with other magical creatures, like pixies or trolls.
As magical creatures, fairies have almost unlimited power. They can fly. They can make flowers bloom. They can conjure up gold. They can glow in the dark. They can create and cast new charms for any situation, and their curses can last for hundreds of years. Their magical attributes endow them with the ability to appear or disappear at will, or change shape into animal forms (Sayce, 1934). Fairy entities, in their restricted sense are unique in English folklore, though these non-human spirits abound Celtic and Germanic folk beliefs. Among European folk and fairy tales the fairies of French and Celtic romances are often merged with the elves of Teutonic myth. Similar stories of fairy-like creatures occur in other European traditions including the Latin and the Slavic, as well as their historical origin distilled from Celtic, Welsh and Breton medieval French romances and tradition. In many regions, including China, India, and Arabia with the Jinns, there are found beliefs in the existence of supernatural, sometimes dwarfish or pygmy-like ethereal entities. Their diminutive size and appearance was cultivated in response to the tales of Victorian ‘nursery tales’ read to children “…as a supernatural race existing in the fancy of the folk or North and West Europe.” (MacCulloch, 1912).
Where Do Fairies Live?
Even if you can’t see them, fairies live nearby. In fact, a fairy might be sitting right beside you or dancing in your yard at this very moment. The reason most people don’t see fairies is because they occupy a parallel universe, which exists alongside our own but functions at a different resonance. One way to understand this concept is to compare it to TV or radio channels. When you’re watching or listening to one channel, you can’t see or hear the others—but they’re still there. The same holds true for the land of fairies or the “realm of the fey.” Legends say that fairies went into hiding to avoid the humans who invaded their lands.
In some cases, the fairies literally went underground, making their homes in caves, burrows, and underwater fortresses. A folklorist on the Scottish isle of Arran told writer Moyra Doorly that “the fairies left when electricity came.” As modern people took over the earth, cutting down trees, building roads, and creating cities, fairy folk withdrew to more remote locales and finally into the spirit world. An invisible “veil” separates the world of humans from the fairy realm, which makes it challenging for us to interact with them. At certain times of the year—specifically on Beltane (May 1) and Samhain Eve (October 31)— that veil thins, enabling people to see and communicate more easily with spirits of all kinds. Midsummer’s Eve, as Shakespeare tells us, is another good time to cavort with the fey.
Mythology tells us that long before humans dominated the landscape, fairies of all kinds populated the earth’s wild places. The Welsh Tylwyth Teg, for instance, lived deep in the woods and on isolated islands off the coast of Wales. Germany’s nixies dwelt in secret regions beneath streams and waterfalls. The Hungarian tündér perched high on mountaintops. Perhaps these beings were more substantial and less ephemeral in those days than they are now.
Deep in Russia’s immense forests, known as the taiga, woodland fairies ruled supreme. These nature spirits, called leshiye, were master shapeshifters who sometimes appeared as tall as trees or as tiny as mice. They could assume the forms of animals or human beings, too, or as composite creatures with green beards and hair and the horns and hooves of a goat. These trickster fairies were known for confusing mortals who intruded into their territory, causing them to become hopelessly lost in leshiye land. Whether the fairies did this for amusement or to safeguard the forests and wildlife from woodcutters and hunters is unknown -perhaps both are true.
Fairies still abide in lakes and mountains, forests and fields. You might also find them flourishing in flower gardens and vegetable patches. They still take seriously their role as nature’s stewards, nurturing and protecting not only plants, but stones, animals, and other creatures as well. Many fairies, legends tell us, also possess magical healing powers and excel in the use of herbs and minerals to cure ills of all kinds.
Usually, fairies stay out of sight of humans, going about their business without fanfare. But if you detour off the beaten track and into the peaceful, unspoiled places on our planet, you may get lucky and enjoy a close encounter with these nature spirits. Just be careful not to get too close or to fall for their ruses—you might never come back from the fairy realm!
In ancient times, fairy doors were portals between the realm of the fairies and the human world. Most of the time, mortals are denied access to fairyland. But at certain times of the year, people could catch a glimpse of the spirit world through these openings. A fairy door might resemble a pathway through a heavily wooded area, a narrow entrance into a cave, a gap in a stone wall, or a knothole in an ancient tree. Shamanic journeys sometimes begin with entering portals such as these in order to visit unseen worlds.
Myths and legends tell us that fairies have an arsenal of supernatural powers that they can use for good or ill—and mere mortals are no match for them. Throughout history, friendly fairies have helped humans by protecting crops and livestock, healing the sick and delivering babies, granting wishes and bringing good luck. Angry spirits, on the other hand, reportedly stir up storms, wither crops, conjure plagues, cast curses that last for eternity, and turn humans into toads, stones, or worse. So obviously, you want to stay in the fairies’ good graces.
But here’s the conundrum. Fairies don’t feel emotions the way humans do, nor do they share our sense of ethics—although they have their own codes, which can be quite rigid. At best, fairies could be considered amoral. Our ancestors sought to understand the ways of the fey in order to win the fairies’ favor and avoid incurring their wrath. You might want to do the same, because even though these spirits seem pretty innocuous in the way they’re depicted by modern media, they have a long tradition of being anything but. They may not be immortal, but fairies live a whole lot longer than humans do—ten times as long, maybe more. According to some legends, they populated the planet eons before people came on the scene. During all those millennia, they’ve had time to learn everything there is to know about mortals. Furthermore, as fairies age they hold onto their powers instead of growing feeble and senile like humans. Not only do many fairies have keener vision than humans, they can see into the future. ”The Sight” (clairvoyance) is natural to them, so they know what’s going to happen before it does. Obviously, this eliminates guesswork and gives them the upper hand in most situations.
Now you see her, now you don’t. Just when you finally think you’ve spotted a fairy, she throws a cloak of invisibility over her shoulders and vanishes before your very eyes. Maybe she simply merged quietly into the shadows or greenery around her, or she might have slipped back through the veil that separates the land of enchantment from our own. The truth is, you’ll only see a fairy if she wants you to. What’s more, fairies can cause their entire kingdoms to appear and disappear in the blink of an eye, leaving you wondering if you dreamed the whole thing.
“I believe in everything until it’s disproved. So I believe in fairies, the myths, dragons. It all exists, even if it’s in your mind. Who’s to say that dreams and nightmares aren’t as real as the here and now?” — John Lennon
This article is a short excerpt from the book:
Fairies: The Myths, Legends, & Lore by Skye Alexander and the online presentation from The Origin and Lore of Fairies and Fairy Land, by Eric Edwards