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.
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.
Arrowsmith, Nancy, and G. Moorse. A Field Guide to the Little People. New York: Macmillan, 1977.
Baring-Gould, S. A Book of Folk-Lore. London, .
Briggs, Katharine M. The Anatomy of Puck: An Examination of Fairy Beliefs Among Shakespeare's Contemporaries and Successors. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1959.
——. A Dictionary of Fairies. London: Allen Lane, 1976. Reprint, London: Penguin, 1977.
——. The Personnel of Fairyland. Oxford, England: Alden Press, 1953. Reprint, Singing Tree Press, 1971.
——. The Vanishing People: A Study of Traditional Fairy Beliefs. London: B. T. Batsford, 1978.
Cooper, Joe. The Case of the Cottingley Fairies. London: Robert Hale, 1990.
Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Coming of the Fairies. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1922. 2nd ed., rev. and enl. London: Psychic Press, 1928. Reprint, New York: Samuel Weiser, 1972.
Edwards, Gillian. Hobgoblin and Sweet Puck: Fairy Names and Natures. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1974.
Froud, Brian, and Alan Lee. Faeries. London: Souvenir Press, 1978. Reprint, New York: Bantam Books, 1979. Reprint, London: Pan Books, 1979.
Gardner, Edward L. Fairies: The Cottingley Photographs and Their Sequel. London: Theosophical Publishing House, 1945.
Haining, Peter. The Leprechaun's Kingdom. London: Souvenir Press, 1979.
Halliwell-Phillipps, J. O. Nursery Rhymes and Nursery Tales of England. London, 1853.
Hartland, Edwin, W. The Science of Fairy Tales: An Enquiry Into Fairy Mythology. London, 1891. Reprint, Detroit: Singing Tree Press, 1968.
Kirk, Robert. The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies. 1691. Reprint, London: D. Nutt, 1893.
Latham, M. W. The Elizabethan Fairies. New York: Columbia University Press, 1931.
Mac Manus, D. A. The Middle Kingdom: The Faerie World of Ireland. London: Max Parrish, 1959.
O'Donnell, Elliot. The Banshee. London: Sands, 1919.
Ritson, Joseph. Fairy Tales, Now First Collected: To Which Are Prefixed Two Dissertations: 1. On Pygmies; 2. On Fairies. London, 1831.
Sikes, Wirt. British Goblins. London, 1880. Reprint, Wakefield, England: EP Publishing, 1973.
Spence, Lewis. British Fairy Origins. London: Watts, 1946.
——. The Fairy Tradition in Britain. London: Rider, 1948.
Van Gelder, Dora. The Real World of Fairies. London: Theosophical Publishing House, 1977.
White, Carolyn. A History of Irish Fairies. Ireland: Mercier Press, 1976.
Yearsley, Macleod. The Folklore of Fairy-Tale. London: Watts, 1924. Reprint, Detroit: Singing Tree Press, 1968.
Yeats, W. B., ed. Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry. London & New York, 1888.
"Fairies." Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 14, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/fairies
"Fairies." Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology. . Retrieved November 14, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/fairies
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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. (November 14, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/fairies
"fairies." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Retrieved November 14, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/fairies
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"Sidhe." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 14, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/sidhe
"Sidhe." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Retrieved November 14, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/sidhe
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FAIRIES . Fay, the old word for "fairy," is thought to come from the Latin fata, which signifies the Fates, supernatural women who appear beside the cradle of a newborn infant to decide its future. The fairies invited to Sleeping Beauty's christening are an echo of this belief. During the Middle Ages fairy meant the state of enchantment and the land of enchanted beings as well as those who live in it.
Fairies are found under various names in many countries, but they are more typical of Europe and Asia than of the Americas and Africa. To some extent their social organization reflects the world of humans. In Irish Fairy and Folk Tales (1893) the poet William Butler Yeats distinguished between trooping fairies and solitary fairies. The trooping fairies appear in medieval Arthurian legend and romance and are most popular in the literature of Elizabethan England; since that time stories about them have ceased to be written. They are handsome, aristocratic, and beautifully dressed, and they take part in the Fairy Ride. Like their human counterparts, they hunt and hawk, trotting in procession behind their king and queen, who ride white horses decorated with silver bells. Their fairy realm, which is centered on their royal court, is noted for the excellence of its music, dancing, and feasting as well as for the beauty of its women. The Irish Tuatha Dé Danann ("people of the goddess Danu") are trooping fairies; they are immortal and live in Tír na nʾOg, the Land of Youth.
The nonaristocratic, solitary fairies are described as ugly and often ominous and ill-natured. Some are engaged in trade, like the Irish leprechaun shoemaker, who is quite harmless. A third category of fairy comprises those who live in family groups. They work the land, hold their own markets, and visit human fairs.
Nature fairies are spirits of streams, lakes, and trees. The Russian rusalki are water nymphs, who take the form of young maidens. Dryads are tree spirits. So are oak men; hence there is a saying, "Fairy folks are in old oaks." In England, hawthorn is haunted by the fairies, especially if it grows near fairy hills, and the Gooseberry Wife, in the form of a great hairy caterpillar, stands guard over the fruit bushes.
Tutelary fairies, the family guardians and domestic spirits, look after the fortunes of a particular household. The Scottish MacLeods on the island of Skye were given a fairy flag by their supernatural guardian. Germans call their house spirit der Kobold ("gnome"), an unreliable creature whose name survives in the modern cobalt. (German miners called this slightly magnetic element after the famous sprite because they found it tiresome and difficult to use.) Danes have their nis ; the French their esprit follet ; the Spaniards their duende ; and the Faeroese Islanders, in the North Atlantic, their niagruisar.
Russians call their domestic spirits domovois, after dom ("house"). Legend says that these creatures were rebellious spirits who opposed God and so were thrown down from heaven, falling on people's roofs and into their yards. They are amiable and live in the warmth near the hearth. Because it is considered important to please the domovoi, peasants leave egg pancakes for him on the threshing floor. When a peasant family moves, they put a piece of bread beside the stove in hopes that the domovoi will come with them. In his autobiography Childhood (1913), the Russian writer Maxim Gorky describes how his family moved from their house: His grandmother took an old shoe, held it under the stove, and called to the household spirit, asking him to ride in the shoe and bring the family good luck in their new home.
English brownies are also associated with the hearth. They are active at night and do work that the servants have neglected: cleaning and drawing water for the house, tending farm animals, reaping, mowing, threshing, and churning butter. Families can leave food, such as a bowl of cream or little cakes spread with honey for the brownies, but direct gifts, such as money or clothes, will drive the spirit away.
Domestic spirits can be very tiresome. A folktale well known all over Europe tells of a farmer so bothered by the pranks of a boggart (or mischievous brownie) that he decides to move. The family packs their household belongings and loads the cart. As they are leaving, a voice from inside the milk churn says, "Yes, we're moving!" It is the boggart. The family gives up and decides to stay, for what would be the point of moving if the creature was coming too? In other versions of the story the boggart immigrates with the family to the United States.
The most tragic tutelary fairy is the banshee, an Irish and Highland Scottish spirit of death. The word means a woman (ban ) of the fairy folk (sídh, pronounced "shee"). This apparition materializes when someone is about to die. In Scotland the banshee is seen washing the doomed person's graveclothes or bloodstained garmets and can be heard wailing and lamenting, her eyes red with tears. Mélusine, daughter of the fairy Pressina, became the banshee of the house of Lusignan in France. When the family was wiped out and its castle fell to the crown, she appeared, foretelling the deaths of the kings of France.
Some supernatural creatures are closely associated with a particular historical era or geographic area. The gnomes of Europe, for example, were a product of the ancient Hermetic and Neoplatonic doctrine from which medieval medicine and science derived. According to medieval thought, all mortal creatures are a blend of earth, air, fire, and water, and the four elemental beings are gnomes (who inhabit the earth), sylphs (who inhabit the air), salamanders (who inhabit fire), and nereids (who inhabit water). The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the word gnome is an elision of the Latin genomus ("earth dweller"). Paracelsus (1493–1541), the Swiss physician and alchemist, provides in his De nymphus the first description of gnomes as elemental beings of the earth. According to tradition, gnomes live underground and are treasure guardians. Also known as dwarfs, they are skilled metalworkers, supplying medieval knights with armor and weapons that they themselves forge. They are also often associated with mines.
The knockers are said to live in the tin mines of England's Cornwall. They are friendly creatures and will knock on the mine walls to indicate veins of ore. An anti-Semitic legend claims that they were the ghosts of Jews who had been sent to work the mines as a punishment for taking part in the Crucifixion. Richard, earl of Cornwall (1200–1272), is said to have put the Jews to work in the Cornish tin mines, and Robert Hunt, in his Popular Romances of the West of England (1865), claims that the tin mines were farmed out to the Jews in the thirteenth century. But Jewish merchants had very little connection with the tin trade, and no evidence supports these improbable suggestions.
Pixies are another group of fairies belonging to English west-country tradition. They are found in Somerset, Devonshire, and Cornwall. Anna Eliza Bray first brought them to the attention of the public in a series of letters to the poet Robert Southey that were published under the title The Borders of the Tavy and the Tamar (1836). The chief characteristic of pixies is that they mislead travelers; as recently as 1961, a woman claimed to have been misled by pixies in a wood near Budleigh Salterton. Local tradition says that pixies are the souls of those who died before Christ was born or of unbaptized children.
Closely related to the pixie and its habit of leading travelers astray is the will-o'-the-wisp (Fr., le feu follet ; Ger., das Irrlicht ), also called jack-o'-lantern or ignis fatuus ("foolish fire"). This sprite appears in the folklore of many countries and is often an omen of death. In England the will-o'-the-wisp is also identified with the mischievous sprite Puck, or Robin Goodfellow. Traditional legends about this spirit who lures folks to their death in the bog may be an attempt to account for marsh gas, which emanates from rotting organic matter and is ghostly in appearance.
Other malevolent spirits are also linked with the environment. The malicious yarthkins of Lincolnshire, England, another damp area, disappeared when the fens were drained.
The English goblin, or hobgoblin, is a generic term for evil spirits. It is difficult to distinguish between goblins and imps, however. Originally imp referred to an offshoot or a cutting, but in its sense as a supernatural creature it means a small demon, an offshoot of Satan. In England the Puritans thought all fairy creatures were devils, and thus the preacher John Bunyan, in his famous book Pilgrim's Progress (1678), numbers the hobgoblin and the "foul fiend" among the forces of evil to be resisted.
Elves reached England from Norse mythology, where they were known as huldre folk, closely resembling fairies. The girl elves are very beautiful but they are hollow behind and have long cow's tails. Trolls are another Norse group of supernatural beings. Originally they were thought of as giant ogres, but in later Swedish and Danish tradition they become dwarfs who live in hills and caverns. Like the German dwarfs, they are fine craftsmen and treasure guardians, noted for their stupidity. In the Shetland Islands, north of Scotland, where Scandinavian influence is strong, these beings are called trows.
Not all mischievous, supernatural creatures are of ancient origin. The gremlin, a supernatural being who causes trouble for pilots and aircrews, dates from World War I. An explanation for human error, flight fatigue, and high-altitude pressures, the gremlin may originate from the Old English word gremian ("to vex").
The relationships that fairies enjoy with human beings has varied considerably. Some can be very helpful; such helpfulness is said to be how the MacCrimmons, the most distinguished Scottish pipers, learned their skill. As mentioned, guardian spirits look after the families in their care, and brownies do household chores. But they become malevolent if badly treated—or simply disappear. Anybody who spies on them is severely punished.
In folk tradition human beings are sometimes abducted by the fairies. Thomas the Rhymer (Thomas of Erceldoune), the poet and prophet, lived in thirteenth-century England. His tale is told in The Ballad of True Thomas and by Sir Walter Scott in Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802). Legend says that Thomas received the gift of prophecy from the Queen of Elfland, who loved him and took him away to live with her for seven years.
Stories of fairy brides are common and usually end in tragedy. The lovely creature marries a mortal and imposes some taboo on him. When it is broken, the fairy bride returns to fairyland, deserting her husband and children. Seal-maidens and swan-maidens are usually captured against their will by the theft of their skin or feathers. As soon as they can retrieve the stolen item, they escape.
When a mortal visits fairyland, the result is often equally tragic. The visitor cannot escape and becomes the victim of the supernatural passage of time, whereby one day represents hundreds of years. King Herla was able to return home with his knights, but when they dismounted they crumbled into dust because they had been away for three hundred years.
Although fairies lead independent lives, there are many examples of their dependence on mortals. Narratives tell of midwives summoned to help a fairy in labor and of fairies anxious to possess human children. Stories of the theft of babies continue from the Middle Ages to the present time. Typically the fairies steal an unbaptized child and leave an ugly fairy baby in its place. If the changeling is surprised, it will speak, revealing its true identity; then it can be driven away. Various methods may be used to trick the spirit, such as serving him beer brewed in eggshells. In German tradition the creature would exclaim, "I am as old as the forests of Bohemia, and I've never seen beer brewed in an eggshell before."
These legends conceal much human suffering and cruelty to children. Malformed babies were put over a fire in order to pressure the fairies into returning the supposedly stolen child. Such cases have been recorded as late as the early twentieth century in Ireland. Until recently it was thought that a defect in a child resulted from a defect in the parents. Basically, changelings were sickly, backward, or deformed children. Simple people, unwilling to accept that such a child could be theirs, maintained that the fairies had stolen the real baby and left this wretched thing in its place.
Belief in fairies thus has an aetiologic function: It provides an explanation for mysterious objects and events that are otherwise not understood. The remains of earlier civilizations, which puzzled the uneducated in days gone by, are another obvious example. The ancient Pictish areas of Scotland contain the remains of brochs, round, hill-shaped farmhouses with stone walls and a turf covering. These structures are often referred to as fairy knowes. Burial mounds have also been linked with fairyland. Sudden, disabling illness, such as that caused by a stroke, was traditionally considered to be the result of an elf shot, a wound from one of the flint arrows that are found in low-lying areas, and many Anglo-Saxon charms meant to protect against such attacks have been preserved. Various other illnesses whose origin seemed puzzling centuries ago, such as a slipped disk, rheumatism, and anything that deforms the body, were attributed to invisible blows from the little creatures. Paralysis, skin disease, wasting illnesses such as tuberculosis, and animal disorders such as swine fever and brucellosis have all been blamed on the fairies.
Unusual topographical features are also sometimes attributed to fairies. Those curious, dark green circles that appear on grassy lawns and meadows, often surrounded by a circle of mushrooms, are known as fairy rings, and it is considered very unlucky to damage them in any way. They are in fact caused by Marasmius oreades, a type of fungus, but people believe that they are spots where the fairies dance.
Sometimes supernatural origins are attributed to exceptionally large or beautiful objects. There are various stories of a cup stolen from the fairies. The "Luck of Eden Hall" in Cumberland, England, is a lovely green glass goblet, a talisman that was supposed to preserve the Eden family's fortunes. Legend says that the goblet was snatched from the fairies by a servant; if it broke, the family would be destroyed. Eden Hall was pulled down in 1934, but the "Luck" is preserved in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
In the thirteenth-century Church of Saint Mary at Frensham in Surrey, England, stands a huge caldron, measuring one yard across. Local tradition says that it was borrowed from the fairies who lived on nearby Borough Hill and was never returned. Probably it was employed in parish feasts and celebrations and then this early usage was forgotten.
Sightings and eyewitness accounts of fairies are common. A striking example was provided by Robert Kirk (1644–1692), a folklorist who became the subject of a fairy tale. Kirk was a Gaelic scholar and a minister of the Scottish church. Evidently his parishioners disapproved of his researches in the supernatural, for when he died and his body was found lying beside a fairy knowe, rumor said that he was living with the fairies inside it. This legend is recorded by Scott in his Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft (1830). Kirk's own account of fairy beliefs in the Scottish Highlands, The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies, was not published until 1815, long after his death. The brilliant and eccentric English painter and poet William Blake (1757–1827) claimed to have seen a fairy funeral. The body, he said, was laid out on a rose leaf and carried in procession by creatures the size and color of grasshoppers.
In Ireland, places once associated with fairies are pointed out and treated with great respect. To interfere with them is thought to bring bad luck. More than once new roads have been rerouted for such a reason. Recently a fairy bush was cut down in front of a Dutch-owned factory in Limerick. Dutch workmen performed the task because local workers refused. When the works closed not long after and well over a thousand jobs were lost, the disaster was blamed on the removal of the fairy bush.
Traditionally, the fairies dress in green. Green is their color, and even today, many people regard it as unlucky and will not wear it, although they no longer remember the reason.
Various theories have been put forward to explain the origins of the fairies. A British tradition suggests that fairies represent memories of an ancient Stone Age race. When the Celts arrived in England from central Europe in about 500 bce, the earlier inhabitants were driven back into the hills and hid in caves. They lived underground and were so adept at hiding in the woods that they seemed to be invisible. The popular belief that iron provides protection from the fairies is in line with this view, for the Celts possessed iron weapons, whereas the earlier inhabitants used objects of bronze or stone. The many stories of fairies' borrowings and thefts also lend weight to this theory, for it was thought that these earlier inhabitants borrowed grain and implements, and one can easily imagine a conquered people in hiding, creeping anxiously about to see what they could steal or borrow from their conquerors.
Another view suggests that fairies originated as memories of ancient pagan gods and heroes. They are small in stature because their significance has been reduced. Still another theory sees fairies as personified spirits of nature. Modern supporters of this argument believe that spirits fertilize plants and care for flowers. But this explanation excludes other types of fairy, such as the family guardians and the fairy communities with their elaborate social organization. A fourth suggestion is that the fairies are ghosts. Certainly there are many connections between fairies and the realm of the dead: They live in burial mounds, and many are obviously ghosts and are described as such. None of these theories is entirely adequate, and the answer may well lie in a blend of them all, coupled with the natural desire to find an explanation for puzzling phenomena throughout the world.
Briggs, K. M. The Anatomy of Puck. London, 1959. An examination of fairy beliefs among Shakespeare's contemporaries and successors.
Briggs, K. M. The Fairies in Tradition and Literature. London, 1967. Provides an account of fairy traditions, traffic between humans and fairies, and the literary use of these beliefs.
Croker, Thomas Crofton. Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland. 3 vols. London, 1825–1828. This work was enthusiastically received by the public of its day. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm translated it into German, and Sir Walter Scott corresponded with the author. It remains a valuable contribution to the development of folklore studies.
Gardner, Edward L. Fairies. London, 1945. A book that claims to present photographs of real fairies.
Hunt, Robert. Popular Romances of the West of England. 2 vols. London, 1865. The fruits of a ten-month walking tour in Cornwall during 1829, when the author collected, as he put it, "every existing tale of its ancient people."
Keightley, Thomas. The Fairy Mythology (1828). 2 vols. in 1. New York, 1968. An early study of comparative folklore by an Irish writer with an interest in oral tradition.
Sikes, Wirt. British Goblins. London, 1880. A collection of Welsh material assembled by the U.S. consul for Wales.
Brasey, Edouard. Fées et elfs: l'universe féerique. Paris, 1999.
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"Fairies." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 14, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/fairies
"Fairies." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved November 14, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/fairies