A fairy (also fay, fae, fey, fair folk, or faerie) is a type of mythical being or legendary creature found in the folklore of multiple European cultures (including Celtic, Slavic, Germanic, English, and French folklore), a form of spirit, often described as metaphysical, supernatural, or preternatural.
Myths and stories about fairies do not have a single origin, but are rather a collection of folk beliefs from disparate sources. Various folk theories about the origins of fairies include casting them as either demoted angels or demons in a Christian tradition, as deities in Pagan belief systems, as spirits of the dead, as prehistoric precursors to humans, or as spirits of nature.
The label of fairy has at times applied only to specific magical creatures with human appearance, magical powers, and a penchant for trickery. At other times it has been used to describe any magical creature, such as goblins and gnomes. Fairy has at times been used as an adjective, with a meaning equivalent to "enchanted" or "magical". It is also used as a name for the place these beings come from, the land of Fairy.
A recurring motif of legends about fairies is the need to ward off fairies using protective charms. Common examples of such charms include church bells, wearing clothing inside out, four-leaf clover, and food. Fairies were also sometimes thought to haunt specific locations, and to lead travelers astray using will-o'-the-wisps. Before the advent of modern medicine, fairies were often blamed for sickness, particularly tuberculosis and birth deformities.
In addition to their folkloric origins, fairies were a common feature of Renaissance literature and Romantic art, and were especially popular in the United Kingdom during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. The Celtic Revival also saw fairies established as a canonical part of Celtic cultural heritage.
The English fairy derives from the Early Modern English faerie, meaning "realm of the fays". Faerie, in turn, derives from the Old French form faierie, a derivation from faie (from Vulgar Latin fata) with the abstract noun suffix -erie.
In Old French romance, a faie or fee was a woman skilled in magic, and who knew the power and virtue of words, of stones, and of herbs.
"Fairy" was used to represent: an illusion or enchantment; the land of the Faes; collectively the inhabitants thereof; an individual such as a fairy knight. Faie became Modern English fay, while faierie became fairy, but this spelling almost exclusively refers to one individual (the same meaning as fay). In the sense of "land where fairies dwell", archaic spellings faery and faerie are still in use.
Latinate fay is not related the Germanic fey (from Old English fǣġe), meaning "fated to die". Yet, this unrelated Germanic word "fey" may have been influenced by Old French fae (fay or fairy) as the meaning had shifted slightly to "fated" from the earlier "doomed" or "accursed".
Various folklore traditions refer to fairies euphemistically as wee folk, good folk, people of peace, fair folk (Welsh: Tylwyth Teg), etc.
The term fairy is sometimes used to describe any magical creature, including goblins and gnomes, while at other times, the term describes only a specific type of ethereal creature or sprite.
Historical origins of fairies range from various traditions from Persian mythology to European folklore such as of Brythonic (Bretons, Welsh, Cornish), Gaelic (Irish, Scots, Manx), and Germanic peoples, and of Middle French medieval romances.
According to some historians, such as Barthélemy d'Herbelot, fairies were adopted from and influenced by the peris of Persian mythology. Peris were angelic beings that were mentioned in antiquity in Pre-Islamic Persia as early as the Achaemenid Empire. Peris were later described in various Persian works in great detail such as the Shahnameh by Ferdowsi. A peri was illustrated to be fair, beautiful, and extravagant nature spirits that were supported by wings. This may have potentially influenced migratory Germanic and Eurasian settlers into Europe, or been transmitted during early exchanges.The similarities could also be attributed to a shared Proto-Indo-European mythology.
In the Middle Ages, fairie was used adjectivally, meaning "enchanted" (as in fairie knight, fairie queene), but also became a generic term for various "enchanted" creatures during the Late Middle English period. Literature of the Elizabethan era conflated elves with the fairies of Romance culture, rendering these terms somewhat interchangeable. The modern concept of "fairy" in the narrower sense is unique to English folklore, later made diminutive in accordance with prevailing tastes of the Victorian era, as in "fairy tales" for children.
The Victorian era and Edwardian era saw a heightened increase of interest in fairies. The Celtic Revival cast fairies as part of Ireland's cultural heritage. Carole Silvers and others suggested this fascination of English antiquarians arose from a reaction to greater industrialization and loss of older folk ways.
Fairies are generally described as human in appearance and having magical powers. Diminutive fairies of various kinds have been reported through centuries, ranging from quite tiny to the size of a human. These small sizes could be magically assumed, rather than constant. Some smaller fairies could expand their figures to imitate humans. On Orkney, fairies were described as short in stature, dressed in dark grey, and sometimes seen in armour. In some folklore, fairies have green eyes. Some depictions of fairies show them with footwear, others as barefoot. Wings, while common in Victorian and later artworks, are rare in folklore; fairies flew by means of magic, sometimes perched on ragwort stems or the backs of birds.Modern illustrations often include dragonfly or butterfly wings.
Early modern fairies does not derive from a single origin; the term is a conflation of disparate elements from folk belief sources, influenced by literature and speculation. In folklore of Ireland, the mythic aes sídhe, or 'people of the fairy hills', have come to a modern meaning somewhat inclusive of fairies. The Scandinavian elves also served as an influence. Folklorists and mythologists have variously depicted fairies as: the unworthy dead, the children of Eve, a kind of demon, a species independent of humans, an older race of humans, and fallen angels. The folkloristic or mythological elements combine Celtic, Germanic and Greco-Roman elements. Folklorists have suggested that 'fairies' arose from various earlier beliefs, which lost currency with the advent of Christianity. These disparate explanations are not necessarily incompatible, as 'fairies' may be traced to multiple sources.
A Christian tenet held that fairies were a class of "demoted" angels. One story described a group of angels revolting, and God ordering the gates of heaven shut; those still in heaven remained angels, those in hell became demons, and those caught in between became fairies. Others wrote that some angels, not being godly enough, yet not evil enough for hell, were thrown out of heaven. This concept may explain the tradition of paying a "teind" or tithe to hell; as fallen angels, although not quite devils, they could be viewed as subjects of Satan.
King James, in his dissertation Daemonologie, stated the term "faries" referred to illusory spirits (demonic entities) that prophesied to, consorted with, and transported the individuals they served; in medieval times, a witch or sorcerer who had a pact with a familiar spirit might receive these services.
In England's Theosophist circles of the 19th century, a belief in the "angelic" nature of fairies was reported. Entities referred to as Devas were said to guide many processes of nature, such as evolution of organisms, growth of plants, etc., many of which resided inside the Sun (Solar Angels). The more Earthbound Devas included nature spirits, elementals, and fairies, which were described as appearing in the form of colored flames, roughly the size of a human.
Arthur Conan Doyle, in his 1922 book The Coming of the Fairies; The Theosophic View of Fairies, reported that eminent theosophist E. L. Gardner had likened fairies to butterflies, whose function was to provide an essential link between the energy of the sun and the plants of Earth, describing them as having no clean-cut shape ... small, hazy, and somewhat luminous clouds of colour with a brighter sparkish nucleus. "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."
For a similar concept in Persian mythology, see Peri.
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 Legend of Knockshigowna", 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. The 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 an 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 their 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.'
The History of Fairies
May 12, 2021