A species of supernatural beings or nature spirits, one of the most beautiful and important of mythological concepts. Belief in fairies is ancient and widespread, and similar ideas concerning them are found in primitive as well as civilized societies. Fairies have been celebrated in folklore, stories, songs, and poems. The term fairy comes from the Latin fata and fatum (fate), and in Middle English implied enchantment, or an enchanted land and its inhabitants. Fairies were known as "fays" or "fées" in the British Isles and Europe.
Fairies were often said to be invisible, usually of smaller stature than humans. It was believed they could be helpful to humans, but might be dangerous and evil if offended. They were often considered just mischievous and whimsical in a childlike manner, but were believed to have magical powers.
The strongest traditions of fairies are those of the British Isles and Europe, but belief in fairies has also been found in Asia, America, and Africa. There are scores of characteristic fairies in the European tradition, but the main types include the trooping fairies, who are the aristocrats of the fairy world, living in palaces or dancing and feasting underground; the hobgoblin fairies of a rougher, workman type; nature spirits of rivers, gardens, and woods; and deformed monsters, like hags and giants. For a comprehensive listing of pixies, nixies, elves, fauns, brownies, dwarfs, leprechauns, bogies, banshees, and other fairies, see the excellent work A Dictionary of Fairies (1976), by Katharine Briggs, a modern authority on the subject.
Typical activities of fairies in relation to human beings include abducting babies and putting changelings in their place; helping plants and flowers to grow; sweeping floors; bestowing miraculous gifts for friendship (such as removing deformities or breaking the spells of witches); performing mischievous pranks like milking cows in the fields, soiling clothes put out to dry, curdling milk, and spoiling crops.
Fairyland was usually underground or in some magical other dimension. Here time became mystically changed—one night in fairyland might equal a lifetime in the human world. Some of the most romantic and poignant folktales concern mortals who fall in love with a fairy queen and are transported to the magical world of fairyland where all wishes come true, but through breaking some taboo or indulging in homesickness for earthly existence, the mortal is suddenly returned to his world, in which scores of years have passed.
In the seventeenth century, Rev. Robert Kirk investigated the fairies of Aberfoyle in Scotland, much as a visiting anthropologist might study a native tribe. In his book The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies (1691), Kirk confidently describes the life, occupations, and activities of the fairies in their subterranean world. Kirk's tomb is in Aberfoyle, but legend has it that he swooned away while crossing a fairy hill and after apparent death and burial appeared in a dream to a relative, stating that he was a prisoner in fairyland. He gave instructions for his release, but his cousin was too frightened to complete them, and Kirk was lost forever.
There are many folklore stories of fairies assisting humans, mainly in a bucolic setting. Household fairies were said to assist in everyday tasks like washing dishes, laying the fire, sweeping the floor, making bread bake properly, and so on but asked to be treated respectfully and given a cup of milk for their trouble.
Other fairies played mischievous pranks of a poltergeist nature, pelting mortals with stones, preventing bread from rising, blowing out candles, knocking pans off shelves, sending gusts of smoke, or annoying horses and cattle. Often this was deemed a punishment for lack of respectful treatment. In rural areas, fairies were often referred to in flattering terms as "the good people" to avoid offending them.
According to superstition, the fairies would sometimes steal a human baby and put a changeling fairy child in its place, often ugly and bad-tempered. The changeling might be tricked into a sudden admission of its fairy origin, but there was also a folk superstition that it should be set on fire for this purpose. Undoubtedly some temperamental babies were fatally burned because of this belief, which persisted until some two centuries ago in isolated peasant districts.
Fairy traditions have been strongest in Celtic countries. In Scotland and Ireland, fairies were called daoine sithe (men of peace) and it was believed that every year the devil carried off a tenth part of them. In Scotland and Ireland, Neolithic flint arrowheads were believed to be fairy weapons, and water in which they were dipped was said to be a cure for many ills. The Celts believed fairy music could be heard in certain spots, and it was usually described as sublime. Some folk music airs are said to have originated in fairy music.
"Fairy rings" are small dark green circles in the grass of meadows, fields, or lawns caused by a certain fungus. These rings were once said to be the dancing places of the fairies. In Ireland, mound burials were believed to be the haunts of fairies.
Theories of Fairies
There were many different beliefs concerning fairies. Peasant traditions said they were fallen angels who were neither good enough to be saved nor bad enough to be lost. Folklorists hypothesize that fairies are a folk recollection of an ancient pygmy race, are mythological personifications of natural phenomena, or are remnant figures from ancient religious beliefs. Household tales of folk heroes like Jack the Giant-Killer are probably transplanted from ancient Indo-European folklore, and folk traditions have been made sophisticated in the tales of the Countess d'Aulnoy and Hans Christian Andersen.
Different beliefs and folk memories have no doubt merged, but when all this is sifted and evaluated there remains a body of tradition and testimony, even today, of an elusive ghostly order of life on the borderland of mind and matter, usually depicted in the natural setting of wild and lonely places rather than in the skeptical materialistic bustle of towns and cities.
W. Y. Evans-Wentz, in his The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries (1911) presents a living testimony of fairies, the recorded traditions of Celtic literature and mythology, an examination of various theories for fairies, and a case for the reality of fairy life. In the final section, Evans-Wentz correlates fairy life with the ghosts and spirits of psychical phenomena, quoting the French researcher Camille Flammarion, who suggests in his book Mysterious Psychic Forces (1907):
"Either it is we who produce these phenomena, or it is spirits. But mark this well: these spirits are not necessarily the souls of the dead; for other kinds of spiritual beings may exist, and space may be full of them without our ever knowing anything about it, except under unusual circumstances. Do we not find in the different ancient literature, demons, angels, gnomes, goblins, sprites, spectres, elementals, etc.? Perhaps these legends are not without some foundation in fact."
Evans-Wentz concludes that "we can postulate scientifically, on the showing of the data of psychical research, the existence of such invisible intelligences as gods, genii, daemons, all kinds of true fairies, and disembodied men." In his assertions, Evans-Wentz goes far beyond the territory usually covered by his colleagues, who usually limit themselves to the study of folklore traditions.
In his foreword to the 1966 reissue of Evans-Wentz's book, Leslie Shepard cites the protean aspect of fairies (i.e., their ability to change form in accordance with the convention of the viewer) and says, "I have a strong suspicion that in the newer mythology of flying saucers some of those 'shining visitors' in spacecraft from other worlds might turn out to be just another form of fairies." Since then, similar views have been advanced by UFO commentators like Jacques Vallee and Brad Steiger. Other ufologists have suggested that fairies and flying saucer phenomena can be correlated with such miraculous religious apparitions as those of Fatima or Lourdes.
Claims of contact with fairies are numerous. In 1907 Lady Archibald Campbell interviewed an old blind man and his wife living in an Irish glen who claimed to have caught a fairy and kept it captive for two weeks before it escaped (see Occult Re-view, 6, no. 5, November 1907). A friend of the couple claimed he had seen fairies on the Hill of Howth at early morning, "little men about three feet high, riding on donkeys to scale." Around the same time a reporter on Irish radio interviewed a woman in the west of Ireland who had been "infested with fairies" for several weeks after cutting down a fairy thornbush. The thornbushes believed to be jealously cherished by fairies are still sometimes left undisturbed in Irish fields.
The most famous case of alleged fairy contact came in 1917, when Elsie Wright, age 16, and Frances Griffiths, 10, who lived in the small Yorkshire village of Cottingley, England, claimed they saw and played with fairies near a brook in the local countryside. No one believed them, so they borrowed a camera and produced photographs of their fairies. These pictures later came to the attention of the author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and became the basis of his book The Coming of the Fairies (1922). Doyle accepted the girls' story. The evidence for the genuineness of these photographs was quite strong, and a number of attempts were made to disprove them. Skeptics suggested a number of explanations (all of which proved wrong) and it was not until a thorough study of the photographs was made in the 1980s that the source and means of the hoax became known. Shortly before their deaths, the women admitted the hoax.
Doyle's book continues to be reprinted and circulated, primarily in theosophical circles. Many Theosophists became convinced of the truth of the girls' story after independent claims regarding the reality of the Cottingley fairies came from Theosophist Geoffrey Hodson, who visited the Cottingley glen with the two girls in 1921 and affirmed that he saw wood elves, gnomes, goblins, and other nature spirits.
In her book The Real World of Fairies (1977), theosophical leader Dora van Gelder, who grew up in Java, states that she played with fairies and later even saw them in New York's Central Park.
Other British psychics, including Vincent Turvey and Horace Leaf, also claimed to see fairies, and in 1927 the Fairy Investigation Society was formed in Britain to collate information on fairy sightings. The society eventually became inactive, largely as a result of unwelcome newspaper reports ridiculing the subject. Other organizations that take an interest in fairies include the Gnome Club of Great Britain and Gnome International.
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"Fairies." Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/fairies
"Fairies." Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology. . Retrieved October 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/fairies
The fairies' intermediate position between the human and spirit world had always placed them close to devils. After the Reformation this connection was more readily made and the fairies figured in a number of witchcraft investigations. Belief in the fairies continued among the populace at large, as 19th-cent. folklorists discovered, but belief in them among the educated was long gone by then. Indeed, in that century the supernatural beings of an earlier era were regimented for the purposes of children's story-books.
J. A. Sharpe
"fairies." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/fairies
"fairies." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Retrieved October 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/fairies
"Sidhe." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/sidhe
"Sidhe." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Retrieved October 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/sidhe