They are known by many names, the old folk, the good folk, the fae ("fae" is plural, "faery" is singular), as they find their way into innumerable legends and stories of many cultures, even to the present day. Needless to say, anyone undertaking to research the historical background of fairy stories will stumble upon any number of bizarre websites, so be forewarned if you ever decide to make such a quest. It is sad that such a hearty element of western folklore is now identified with the occult in some quarters, an identification which actually began with the Puritans. To the Puritans, the fairies were none other than demons from hell. On the other hand, the Theosophists of the last century incorporated fairies into their occultism.Come, now a roundel and a fairy song;
Then, for the third part of a minute, hence;
Some to kill cankers in the musk-rose buds,
Some war with rere-mice for their leathern wings,
To make my small elves coats, and some keep back
The clamorous owl that nightly hoots and wonders
At our quaint spirits. Sing me now asleep;
Then to your offices and let me rest.
~from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act 2, Scene 2
(Artwork by Arthur Rackham)
It is not surprising then that in contemporary times fairies have lost the respectability won for them, rather undeservedly, by Charles Perrault, Madame d'Aulnoy, the Brothers Grimm, and Cicely Mary Barker. I say undeservedly since in the oldest tales, fairies were not necessarily benign. Although they were not seen as belonging to the demonic order, they were perceived as being part of the natural world, and like nature, they could be cruel or kind but ultimately unpredictable. If they helped humans it was usually as a side effect of their own business, business which they saw as being far more important than any human affairs. William Shakespeare's fairies in A Midsummer's Night Dream are a prime example of such behavior. The elves of J. R. R. Tolkien also demonstrate traits typical of the fairies of Celtic and Norse folklore in that they are aloof from the world of men, or at least prefer to be aloof, immersed in their own pleasures, feuds and projects.
In the middle ages fairies were infamous for their mischievousness, and were generally regarded as troublemakers. Fairies were known to whisk people away into a dimension of their own, so that the victims would lose large chunks of time. In the last half century, stories of alien abductions have rather replaced the phenomena of fairy-kidnappings that used to figure prominently in Celtic fairy tales. In medieval and Celtic cultures there were various traditions of how to keep the fairies away, much of which degenerated into rank superstition. It seems they were allergic to certain herbs, and had something against bread. They had a love/hate relationship with bells, and stayed away from running water, and from iron. Some fairy-repellent substances varied from country to country. It was commonly held, however, that fairies did not possess immortal souls.
It should be recalled that at her trial for witchcraft St. Joan of Arc was carefully questioned by her judges about her habit of dancing around the local "fairy tree" with the other peasant children. Such was the sincerity and innocence of her answers that her judges, determined to find any pretext on which to condemn her, could not find her guilty of superstition and so had to move on.
Where did the tales of fairies originate? According to "Fairies of Folklore and Legend" by Carey Holmes:
The myth of the fairy was thought to have originated in Celtic and Norse regions. The fairy gave the Irish a sense of pride that they had never felt before. They had never had a folk story originate from their country and were proud to say that fairies were seen there first. Many countries after Ireland soon began to report the sightings of these magical beings, but in Ireland "fairies were almost a political and cultural necessity" (Silver, Carole. Strange and Secret Peoples: Fairies and Victorian Consciousness. New York: Oxford UP, 1999, 34). Many legends and stories originated from them and began to expand into the whole culture of Europe.When it comes to Irish and Scottish fairy lore, one could write volumes. It is believed that the legend of fairies in Ireland came from the tales of the ancient and conquered people who once inhabited the island, the Tuatha De Danaan. When defeated by the Milesians, the Tuatha De Danaan took refuge in the mounds or sidhe. They were said to have been small in stature, which gave rise to the stories of the diminutive fae. Such speculation cannot be proved and remains one of the many mysteries of the myth.
The oldest origin of the fairy was directly connected to the earth and the elements.... People in the Middle Ages believed that fairies were sacred guardians of nature and all the natural elements. The works of Paracelsus in the fifteenth century spoke of these beings and described them as "the sylphs of air, the salamanders of fire, the undines or nymphs of water, and the gnomes of the earth" (Silver 35). Paracelsus also said that these creatures could only live in the element into which they were born. To him, these creatures lived and acted just as humans but were without immortal souls. They could move at super-human speeds, had the ability to materialize and dematerialize when needed, and possessed the magical ability to influence the human world (Silver 35-39). The culture of the time held that "elemental fairies shaped our temperaments: ‘the spirits of nature have their dwellings within us as well as outside of us’" (Silver 39).The most popular belief was that fairies were the fallen angels that chose not to take sides when God banished Lucifer to the bowels of hell. God punished these angels by sending them to live out the rest of their immortal lives as small people with some magical powers that were permanently banned to the earthly plane. Other believed that fairies were the spirits of un-baptized children that died at birth or that they were the souls of the dead that were not good enough to go to heaven or evil enough to go to hell, that they were permanently trapped on the earthly plane until God received them into His kingdom (Silver 37-9).
It should also be pointed out that while fairy stories were prevalent in Celtic culture, they were not more prevalent there than in other cultures, especially during the medieval period. According to Alaric Hall of the University of Leeds:
I have argued here that we can identify impressive cultural continuities from our medieval Irish evidence for the áes síde to more recent beliefs in Celtic-speaking regions: there is no doubt that Celtic-speakers have had strong fairy-traditions. However, in the medieval period they may have been no different in this from their English-speaking neighbours. There are clear ideological reasons why it suited scholars in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to accentuate the differences between fairy-lore in the medieval Celtic-speaking regions and medieval Germanic-speaking regions. But the primary evidence more plausibly suggests similarities. Anglo-Saxon elves seem likely to have been magically powerful people living alongside normal human communities, just like the Irish áes síde....Fairies continue to fascinate people, and have not been completely replaced by stories of aliens, since they continue to appear in popular films and children's tales. Perhaps the representation which has the most continuity with the old myths is Tolkien's in The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion and The Hobbit. As Gildor says to Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring: "The Elves have their own labours and their own sorrows, and they are little concerned with the ways of hobbits, or of any other creatures upon earth." (Fellowship, p. 114) Nevertheless, Samwise Gamgee exclaims after meeting the fair folk for the first time: "Wonderful folks, Elves, sir! Wonderful!" (Fellowship, p.117) which perhaps sums up better than anything else the universal fascination with the fae.
(Artwork The Captive Robin and Court of Faerie, courtesy of Hermes)